Thursday, June 26, 2008

What Dreams Lie Ahead of Us

I’ve never had a very strong sense of what I should do with my life.

Clearly, this is a problem.

When I was an undergraduate (five LOOOONG years ago—a lifetime ago, it seems), I felt like I was surrounded by students who knew exactly what they wanted to do with their life: medicine. You see, premedical studies are big at my college, and if you are studying biology or biochemistry like I was, you’ll find yourself swimming in a sea of future doctors. They are motivated, ambitious, and competitive. They are ready for med school, and nothing will stand in their way. But what mystified me about them was this: How did they know? How did they know at the tender age of eighteen or nineteen what they wanted to do for the rest of their lives?

I don’t even know what I want to have for dinner tomorrow night, let alone what I want to do for the next forty years.

Like most people, I’ve always loved food. Like many people, I had bad skin (or what I thought was bad skin) as a teenager. I was a little pimply, sometimes a lot pimply, and I didn’t like it. I wanted smooth, clear, beautiful skin, the kind you see in a magazine ad for foundation. I didn’t want to wear pounds of makeup to give the illusion of perfect skin; I wanted my own skin to be picture-perfect. With the best of intentions, my mother suggested to me that to help my skin, perhaps I should eat more fruits and vegetables. After I got over my initial shock at her criticism (rare as it was from her), I realized she was right. And slowly, ever so slowly, I began weaning myself off of sugary soda and candy, eating more carrots and fewer cookies.

Whether it was simply a shift in hormones, the new face lotion prescribed by the dermatologist, or the healthier diet, my skin cleared up. Beautifully. I was elated! And I was so happy with the change that I started to think maybe I wanted to study nutrition seriously. Maybe I could be a nutritionist. Maybe I could help other people eat better!

(I should add here that I also considered dermatology, but I can’t stand the sight of blood, so it was never really an option for me.)

But I wasn’t sure about nutrition. And then I found myself swept off my scholarly feet by an enthusiatic philosophy professor with a passion for neuroscience, and POOF! Fast forward several years and I’m so deep into a Ph.D. in neuroscience that the only logical answer is to finish it.

Don’t get me wrong—I didn’t decide to go to grad school on a whim. I started my Ph.D. thinking I would teach. I love learning and teaching, and I love interacting with people. I’m not the stereotypical scientist who prefers to work alone, cloistered away in the lab, trying to cure cancer. On occasion I am that scientist, such as on quiet Sunday evenings when no one else is around. Most of the time, I prefer the social aspect of science. But now, as I approach the crossroads that is graduation, I am realizing that I must leave the lab. It is unlikely that I will thrive if I continue my career as a researcher—I will be lucky if I can finish grad school.

But I’m haunted by that dream of helping other people eat better.

Food is so fundamental. I really believe it is key to our health and happiness. It is the sun around which my earthly thoughts revolve. Food absorbs me, happily, willingly. A career where I spend my time talking to people about food and how to eat for health and pleasure? That sounds downright dreamy.

And so I cling to hope. Hope that I will finish my degree here at Northwestern University. Hope that my career path lies ahead of me, waiting for me to discover it. Hope that I will contribute to the greater good, something bigger and more enduring than my life. And hope that there will be delicious, nourishing food to eat along the way. Woman cannot achieve dreams on water alone. (Chocolate milk, maybe.)

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


My reaction after eating one bite of today’s showstopping recipe: “Damn, Daphna!” My cooking co-conspirator knows what to do with a stick of butter. That’s for damn sure.

My good friend and fellow foodie, Ms. Daphna, is a frequent contributor to the comments section of Life, Love, and Food. I thought it high time she gave us a recipe (or two—she’s an overachiever). Lucky for us, she obliged. And in the spirit of keeping love at the center of everything around here, she spins a little tale of romance around two of her most belly-pleasing recipes, Roasted Vegetable Lasagna and her signature Garlic Bread. Since it’s a bit warm around Chicago these days, I haven’t tried Daphna’s Roasted Vegetable Lasagna yet, but her skills in the kitchen are impeccable. I trust that you and I, dear reader, are in good hands when lasagna-weather rolls around again. (Which in Chicago might be, um, tomorrow. The seasons are fickle and disobedient around here.)

The Garlic Bread, however, is unbelievably delicious. Daphna may sound like she’s exaggerating in her description of it, but she’s really not. When she made her bread for the two of us and her husband, we three polished off the whole batch. No sweat. And we would have eaten more had there been more to eat. Damn, Daphna! No wonder she’s married and I’m not. [Note to self: Keep extra butter and garlic on hand for romance emergencies. Use as needed.]

Single, married, or somewhere in between, Daphna’s recipes will increase your domestic bliss. Thank you for sharing them with us, D, and thanks for being my friend. You are great.

* * *

Daphna writes:

Veggie lasagna, you hold a special place in my heart. (And meat lasagna, you’re not bad either). You’re delicious and comforting, yet also versatile, dependable, and wholesome. Effortlessly frozen and reheated and at home on paper plates or fine china, you’re the boyfriend who gives you sexy smooches during dessert and then cleans up your kitchen. On the eve of my first wedding anniversary—literally, it’s tomorrow—I must give a celebratory nod to everything that is both good for you and. . . just plain good.

I’ve tried many permutations of veggie lasagna using different types of vegetables and homemade sauces, and this is one of my favorites. Lately I’ve been using jarred sauces (Classico or Newman’s Own are great); however a homemade marinara sauce would also be delicious.

But the real star of the show is the garlic bread, which we tend to reserve for company. This recipe is crazy good, and I mean full-on, lock-down psych ward crazy (sorry, said husband is currently doing a psychiatry rotation). Oddly, cheap French baguettes from the regular grocery store tend to yield better results than expensive artisan loaves. After making the spread, I use two baking steps—first a lower temperature to melt the butter and crisp the bread and then a higher temperature to turn the bread a scrumptious, caramelized golden brown. My usage of this technique, as well as salted butter, is gleaned from The Pioneer Woman’s recommendations in her Buttery Thyme Bread recipe.

Roasted Vegetable Lasagna
Adapted from

For roasting:

1 small to medium eggplant, peeled and sliced into quarter-inch rounds
2 medium zucchini, cut horizontally into quarter-inch slices
1 large red pepper, cut into strips
8 ounces of mushrooms, sliced thickly
Olive oil (I used Boyajian’s Garlic Oil, which was a Thanksgiving gift from Rose-Anne)
Garlic powder

For layering:

15-ounce container of part-skim or fat-free ricotta cheese
½ cup Parmesan cheese (the shredded type, not the little granules in the shakeable container)
Several handfuls of fresh spinach leaves
2 egg whites
26-ounce jar of your favorite marinara sauce
12 whole-wheat (or regular) lasagna noodles
1 cup shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese
3 tbsp. or more of fresh basil, chiffonaded

For the roasting step:

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Slice vegetables, and then place them on pans that have been covered with aluminum oil and sprayed with cooking spray, making sure that they are in a single layer. Brush the vegetables with several tablespoons of oil and sprinkle with salt and garlic powder to taste. Place in oven and roast them for 30 min.

To assemble the lasagna:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. In a bowl, combine the ricotta cheese, Parmesan cheese, and egg whites. Spread about 1/4 cup marinara sauce onto the bottom of a 3-quart baking dish. Layer with four lasagna noodles, half of the ricotta cheese mixture, half of the vegetables, one third of the marinara sauce, and one third of the mozzarella cheese. Top with handfuls of spinach leaves and basil. Repeat layers , topping with the remaining noodles and marinara sauce. Don’t forget to save sufficient sauce for the top of the lasagna. Cover the baking dish with aluminum foil and bake for 30 min. and then remove the foil and bake for an additional 15 minutes. Let stand 10 minutes before cutting.

Daphna’s Garlic Bread

One large loaf of grocery-store French bread (we get the packages that have two smaller loaves and use three halves)
1 stick (1/2 cup) of salted butter at room temperature
6 medium to large garlic cloves, very finely minced or pressed with a garlic press (the latter option makes this task a little easier)
1 tsp. dried parsley
¼ tsp. dried oregano
¼ tsp. dried thyme

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Mix the butter, garlic, and herbs. Slice the garlic bread lengthwise into long half-pieces. Spread the butter mixture thickly on the bread and bake for 10 minutes at 350 degrees. Broil for 1-2 minutes, watching the bread closely to prevent burning. Enjoy!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

To the Limit

I have wanted to fail for as long as I can remember.

That’s a really strange thing to say. What sane person would want to fail?

Perhaps an explanation is in order here. Of all the things I love to do, learning might be my favorite. It explains a lot: why I went to a liberal arts college, why I love to read, why I am infatuated with a man who writes to me using unfamiliar words that I have to look up. I am a virtual sponge for knowledge, soaking up anything and everything that comes my way. And, as it turns out, I’m just as eager to understand myself as I am anything out there.

I have a pretty flexible mind. I’m as comfortable in a math class as in a philosophy class, and I thrived at my tiny liberal arts college, dabbling in chemistry, neuroscience, and philosophy. I loved the emphasis on interdisciplinary learning and the enthusiasm my professors had for teaching and learning. They seemed like such a happy bunch, and their contentment in life hinted to me that I, too, could be a happy college professor.

The problem with my flexible mind is that it’s also easily bored. It always wants something new and exciting to ponder. My current day job (grad student in biology, for any inquisitive readers out there) doesn’t always provide that excitement, and to make matters worse, it often requires long hours in the lab, which leaves less time for exploring life outside the lab.

So you see, I have a Catch-22 on my hands: research is the very definition of novelty. Researchers are creating new knowledge, which is a pretty awe-inspiring thing if you think about it. But the creation of that knowledge requires a huge amount of sacrifice and dedication on the part of the researchers. Curiosity may have driven me into the lab, but only intense focus will get me out of the lab. Or at least out with a PhD attached to my name.

Failure offers a different kind of learning experience. When we fail, we learn what doesn’t work. We learn the ways in which our methods and strategies fall short of our goals. For me, failure has always offered the chance to do something else, to be something other than a scientist, which is something I’ve been preparing to do since I was sixteen years old. At my tender young age of twenty-six, ten years is a long time to spend in preparation for something. And because I’m still in school, I still feel like I’m preparing for my grown-up life. That thought drives me slightly bonkers.

Failure is a very real possibility for me right now, given the precarious position of my first-author manuscript. What would I do if I failed? If the journal rejects my paper, then I suppose the fate of my research career is in my advisor’s hands. We would probably start preparing to submit the paper to another journal. If my advisor were too disgusted with my poor performance to continue with me, I would probably quit graduate school. I’d take a month off from work completely. And quite frankly, the idea of doing that now, in summer’s warm embrace, sounds heavenly. Until reality crashes in on me and I have to start looking for a new job. What would I do? For so long, science has been my career path. I don’t know what I would do. But I think I’d figure it out.

Failure, or rather the possibility of failure, tests our limits. If we succeed, then we have not found our limit. If we fail, then we have found our limit, and our limit is whatever lies between our efforts and success. I crave that knowledge, even as I am scared witless to actually discover it. It’s painful to feel that success is within my reach when I know it will take everything I have to reach that success. Sometimes, when I think about it too much, I just feel so tired that I can’t go on. But inevitably I do. One day, one hour, one task at a time. I just keep going.

* * *

“Anxiety is the essential condition of intellectual and artistic creation.” Charles Frankel

How flattering is it that Nick has passed along the Arte y Pico Award to me! This award is bestowed upon creative people with a penchant for art. My art is of the wordy variety, and somehow it makes my anxiety seem less pathological and more useful.

Nick also tagged me to reveal some random tidbits about myself, and since I tagged him to talk about cookbooks, it only seems fair that I dish some dirt.

What Were You Doing Ten Years Ago?

Ten years ago, I was sixteen and a junior in high school. I was doing normal high-school stuff. A boatload of advanced classes. Baton-twirling with my high school squad. Coaching the junior high baton-twirling squad. Working a crappy job. Playing with fire and contact explosives. Seriously: my baton squad twirled fire batons every year for a spectacular outdoor performance at a football game. It was too much fun. And in advanced chem class, we made contact explosives, which got all over our shoes and drove the other teachers batty with POP-POP-POP tiny explosions for the rest of the day. God, I love chemistry.

What Are Five (Non-Work) Things on Your To-Do List for Today?

Grocery-store pitstop
Make Avocado Corn Salad for dinner (yum!)
Work out—if I’m not too exhausted this evening
Finish answering these questions
Sort my laundry

Five Snacks You Enjoy?

I’m a snacking pro. Straight from the recipe files of Life, Love, and Food, I love nibbling on these treats.

Pretzels and Peanut Butter-Cream Cheese Dip
Nutty Energy Bars
Mocha Ricotta Muffins
Vegan Peanut Butter Cookies

Five Things You Would Do If You Were a Billionaire?

Get a haircut
Set up a trust fund for my niece, Lydia
Fly myself straight to Matt’s secret hiding place, where he is working on his top-secret project (he’d probably send me straight back to Chicago so he can work. ALONE.)
Buy my own home
Throw a party!

Places You Have Lived?

Redford, MI (a suburb of Detroit)
Albion, MI
Pittsburg, PA
Evanston, IL (just north of Chicago, home to Northwestern University)

Jobs You Have Had?

Newspaper deliverer
Sunday newspaper-prepper
Home cleaner
One-hour-photo-shop attendant
Laboratory teaching assistant
Phone-a-thon caller
Coffee-stand attendant
And currently, graduate student in neuroscience! Hurray for a salaried position!

Who Else Deserves the Arte y Pico Award?

Art is in the eye of the beholder. If you think you deserve the Arte y Pico Award, go ahead and snatch it for yourself—and answer these questions, too!

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Gastronomic Hedonist's Library

These days I’ll take just about any feel-good opportunity I can, short of shady exchanges with the “local businessmen.” I’m pretty innocent in my pursuit of pleasure. In fact, in this very moment, keeping me company while I write to you, dear reader, is a cup of decaf green tea, a little tupperware bowl of my favorite new granola doused in milk, and a handful of grapes leftover from yesterday’s snack. Thanks to the edible company, I’m feeling reasonably well, considering the crushingly bad results I just got out of my experiment. Science is being mean to me these days!

But there are few things that make me happier than my cookbook collection. Talking about those books might be one of them. In the interest of hedonic pleasure, I decided to meme myself, which sounds like something terribly unpleasant, but it’s quite the contrary. I’m giving a book report on my favorite books!

1) Total Number of Cookbooks I Own

Twenty-six. And five binders filled with recipes I clipped, printed, received, or invented. Plus assorted cooking magazines that I have yet to prune for recipes before passing them along.

2) Last Cookbook(s) I Bought

Onions: A Celebration of the Onion through Recipes, Lore, and History by Mara Reid Rogers. This book literally had my name all over it. Okay, maybe not literally. But I did find it at the funky used bookstore near my apartment, and I couldn’t say no to a book that’s all about onions. After I bought it, I got distracted by other books, but I intend to return to it ASAP. If I read this book on the el train, do you think I’ll get funny looks from other passengers?

3) Last Cookbook(s) I Read

I’m not going to count the onion book here because I’ve only read a few pages. Lately, I’ve been flipping through Real Vegetarian Thai by Nancie McDermott. I love this cookbook for McDermott’s gorgeous prose and lush remembrances of her time in Thailand. Plus I want to learn how to make a totally kick-ass pad thai.

4) Five Cookbooks that Mean a Lot to Me

Passionate Vegetarian and Dairy Hollow House Soup and Bread, both by Crescent Dragonwagon. These books taught me oodles about cooking. I love ‘em.

Mollie Katzen’s Sunlight Café. This book, along with Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy by Walter C. Willett (not a cookbook but an excellent book about nutrition written for a popular audience), changed the way I think about food. Sunlight Café is a breakfast book that I use for any meal of the day. I love the ricotta muffins, the yeasted flatbread, and the extra-crunchy granola. The hot chocolate is tasty too.

Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home by the Moosewood Collective. Inspiring, down-to-earth, and utterly delicious, this book is full of amazing, interesting recipes. It’s one of my very favorite cookbooks, and I use it a lot these days.

The Chicago Diner Cookbook by Chef Jo A. Kaucher. The Chicago Diner is a Chicago institution, serving delicious vegetarian and vegan meals right in the heart of Wrigleyville and Boys’ Town. I’ve had many a meal there with friends, and it remains one of my favorite things about Chicago. The cookbook was given to me by my dear friend Shawn Marie, who is an amazing cook. I was introduced to the wonder of fresh cilantro by SM, and I always think of her fondly whenever I pluck fringey, fragrant leaves from stems of cilantro. The Chicago Diner Cookbook has a fabulous cilantro-lime vinaigrette, which I love on green salads, shredded carrots, and pureed with white beans to make a gorgeous bean dip.

5) Which Three People Would You Most Like to See Answer These Questions?

Out of sheer curiosity, I’d love to know what these folks would say. I’ll limit my list to fellow bloggers.

Nick. Mostly because I want to know if he’s cooked anything out of The Ultimate Peanut Butter Book. Is it really the last word on peanut butter?

Tina. Because I’m really curious to know if she owns any cookbooks! Is the Internet her cookbook?

Crescent. For two reasons. One: I bet this set of questions is especially challenging for a professional cookbook author (oh, what a dreamy job!). Two: How can I not be curious about what my favorite cookbook author would say about her favorite cookbooks?

And finally, as a note of gratitude, thanks to Molly for indirect permission to indulge myself on cookbook-chat. Orangette, you’re still one of my favorites.

The Chicago Diner’s Cilantro-Lime Vinaigrette
Adapted from “Cilantro-Lime Vinaigrette” in The Chicago Diner Cookbook
Makes about ¾ cup

I adore this vinaigrette. It’s becoming a summer staple in my kitchen, the sort of dressing that tastes best in hot weather. It’s tangy yet plenty sweet from a generous spoonful of sugar, and it’s utterly refreshing. I find this dressing turns out best if I add the salt and pepper by taste (rather than by amount as instructed in the original recipe), so I assume the same will be true for you as well.

As I mention above, this dressing is super versatile. Use it on green salads, shredded vegetables, or in bean dishes for extra flavor. Plays well with others, this vinaigrette does.

4 tbsp. freshly squeezed lime juice (about the amount you get from two limes)
6 tbsp. mild vegetable oil (I like canola oil here)
1 tbsp. turbinado sugar or other granulated sugar
2 tbsp. chopped fresh cilantro
Salt to taste
Pepper to taste

Add all the ingredients except the salt and pepper to a jar with a tight-fitting lid. Shake like mad to blend everything together. Taste. Add salt and pepper to taste, shake again, and taste. Repeat seasoning, shaking, and tasting until the dressing tastes just right to you. Store in the refrigerator in the lidded jar and use as you like.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Balance and Rhythm

I spend a lot of time thinking about this abstract concept of balance. Specifically, life balance. Time for work and time for play. Time with loved ones and time with myself. Time for exertion and time for rest. And a balanced diet: what exactly is that? Is it salad at every meal? Is it meat-potatoes-vegetable? Is it a choice between eating for pleasure and eating for health?

The answer, I think, is that there is no simple answer when it comes to balance. The answers are as unique as each of us.

I’m a little wobbly when it comes to life balance. The reason I spend so much time thinking about it is because it doesn’t come easily to me. I’m either ON or I’m OFF. Last summer, I was ON all the time: working furiously on the experiments for my first manuscript, running all the time as I trained for a half-marathon, and halfheartedly attempting to locate my lost writing voice on my brand-new food blog. It was an exhilarating summer because I was throwing my whole heart into work and working out. As I padded out mile after mile, I would listen to the rhythm of my feet and my breathing, promising myself that it WAS possible to have the three things I wanted most: the successful career, the hot body, the man. Those were my goals; that last one eluded me all summer because I had fallen hard for a guy who had little interest in dating me.

And the successful career? Well, that’s still a work in progress. The long hours in the lab that summer paved the way for a busy fall filled with writing papers, writing grants, submitting papers, submitting grants, and now (finally!) maybe, just maybe seeing my grant funded and my paper published. We’ll see—I’m waiting with my fingers and toes crossed.

But what I miss most about that summer is the running. All summer long, I could tell myself that as long as I crossed that finish line after 13.1 miles, then my summer was a success. If my experiments tanked in the lab (and a lot did), if the guy never came around (and he didn’t), then at least I could be unambiguously successful in one area of my life. I was just eleven seconds over my goal of a sub-two-hour race, which was, to me, close enough to call it victory. Hours after the race, I was hobbling in pain, but I was hobbling victoriously: I HAD FINISHED! The glory, and the pain, were all mine.

It’s funny to me how my thinking about running changes. When I’m not actually in the middle of a work-out, I tell people that I run for the fresh air, the peace of mind, the calming rhythm of breathe in-breathe out. When I’m working out, struggling through the last two miles of a ten-mile training run, all I can think about are the goodies: the hot body and the bragging rights. Peace of mind? There is no such thing when every step feels impossible, every muscle is aching, and there’s still twenty minutes of running on the clock before you’re done.

Running fell by the wayside after I finished my race. I had to take it easy to nurse my left foot back to health. After I was no longer hobbling around, I shifted my focus to walking, yoga, and Pilates—great forms of exercise that are much, much gentler on the body.

But I miss running.

For the past few weekends, I’ve been searching for my lost inner runner. She’s there, I can tell, but she’s slow. So I run at a turtle-like pace, feeling the ground move beneath my feet and the air move in and out of my lungs. I listen to the gentle crunch of sandy gravel under my shoes as I run on the paths along Lake Michigan, blue and expansive as life itself. These are pleasure runs, designed for no purpose other than to make me feel good, both during the run and afterward. So far, it’s working. And right now, that’s good enough for me.

Peanut Butter-Cream Cheese Dip
Makes about 1 cup

There are lots of “energy bars” and “energy drinks” that you can purchase at the store, but I’m more of a homemade kinda girl. I like making my own granola and my own energy bars. Heck, I’ve even made my own yogurt! Even if the homemade treat is really, really simple, I admire the creative spirit and the effort that went into making it. This peanut butter-cream cheese dip is one of those kind of recipes: almost unnecessary given its simplicity, but it’s worth having in the old recipe file just to remind you of how easy and tasty it is. I love its creamy, nutty flavor with a hint of sweetness from the honey; it’s delicious eaten with crunchy bites of pretzel*, the pretzel serving as a conveniently edible utensil.

Peanut butter and Neufchatel cheese are by no means low-fat ingredients, but I think they have a place in a healthy, balanced diet. The combination offers plenty of protein to help satisfy hungry bellies. And if you, like me, have dreams of lacing up your sneakers and feeling the sun on your skin as you run like the wind this summer, a spoonful or two of peanut butter-cream cheese dip can be put to good use as a pre- or post-work-out snack. With or without pretzels.

½ cup Neufchatel cream cheese (cream cheese’s lower-fat cousin)
½ cup natural peanut butter, crunchy or smooth
2 tbsp. honey

1) Combine all ingredients in a food processor. Buzz until smooth. Either serve immediately or spoon dip into a container suitable for refrigeration and chill until ready to eat.

*About pretzels: I recently found that Trader Joe’s makes a very tasty whole-wheat pretzel in the shape of short rods. I’m crazy about whole grains, and these pretzels are great: 100% whole wheat with 3 grams of fiber and 3 grams of protein in a single serving of ten pretzels. They are a bit high in sodium (almost 20% of the daily limit!), but other than the salt, they are awfully nutritious for a snack food. Thank goodness for Trader Joe’s!

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Grill, Eat, Repeat

I’ve been feeling a little guilty lately. My indiscretion is one of the storytelling kind; it’s a result of my attempt to avoid a stream-of-consciousness narrative. Given that my mind is prone to acting like an unruly toddler most of the time anyway, I hope you’ll forgive me for trying to tell a more streamlined story.

Remember those Chickpea Patties that I made and Matt grilled? Well, that wasn’t the first time I’d made those patties. I’ve probably made them at least a dozen times before that at home, in my little nonstick skillet. But even before those patties made their way into my kitchen, I had them hot off the grill, crisp and smoky, cooked by my friend Andy. Andy is married to one of my best friends, Nicole, who I believe was the genius behind the vegetarian menu we had that evening: grilled chickpea patties tucked into pitas with tahini sauce, tomatoes, and a little something green (green peppers? lettuce? my memory fails me here). We ate those luscious little patties with the most delicious tabbouleh I’ve ever had in my life. A medley of grilled vegetables are dropped on the grill and then tossed with the usual tabbouleh suspects plus a most unusual (to me) addition: walnuts. That salad pushes all the right buttons: juicy, a little chewy, a little crunchy, bursting with fresh herbs. It’s expletive-level good. Wow.

After last week’s flurry of writing, I wanted to do something a little different, feature a voice other than my own here at Life, Love, and Food. Nicole kindly agreed to share her tabbouleh recipe with us, and the story behind the recipe. There are few people whose company I enjoy as much as I do Nicole’s; she’s been a best friend, confidant, go-to girl, fellow November birthday girl, and all-around amazing person to me since I met her way back when we were freshmen in college. Nicole is one of those rare people who, early in life, found an exquisite balance between head and heart, reason and emotion. She carries herself with maturity and grace, and she’s also one of the most fun people I know. Nicole and I lived all of ten steps away from each other senior year, sharing an apartment with each other and two other women. It was one of the most memorable years of my life, and she played no small part in making those memories. Now we live far away—she in Boston, me in Chicago—but she’s still one of my best friends. And she loves chai as much as I do, which just demonstrates how brilliant she is.

Nicole, thank you so much for sharing your tabbouleh recipe with me! You and it are wonderful.

* * *

Nicole writes:

The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and I can finally go outside without a heavy jacket. That means SPRING!!! Finally! As soon as the first mild breeze hits my face, my husband and I look at each other with a single thought: LET’S GRILL.

In the spring, summer, and fall months, we take every opportunity to open our backyard to neighbors and friends for this quintessential summer activity. What could be better? Easy bantering with our favorite people over a slow-paced afternoon often turns into a wonderfully lazy evening. Grilling offers ultimate flexibility. Everyone can choose their preferred entree, ranging from the standard fare, like burgers and hotdogs, to more inventive options. Several recent experiments include pinwheel steaks (with sundried tomatoes, spinach, and soft cheese), grilled watermelon, and herbed red-skin potatoes.

In addition to presenting a variety of foods, grilling allows people to eat whenever they want. Certainly, there is something nice about sitting down for a meal with everything prepared in perfect timing. But I must admit to loving the easy style of grilling. You cook a bit, you eat a bit, you cook a bit more. People come and go, and the grill keeps smoking. You can sample the grilled foods and the many sides that friends bring to share. In the end, you might eat more than you originally planned. But it’s worth it!

One of my favorite grilled dishes is Tabbouleh with Grilled Vegetables. I first tasted this salad four summers ago with my mother-in-law, who is the most dedicated cook I know. After the first bite, I knew I was in love. I felt torn about what I liked most: the firm bulgur, the mushrooms, the smoky essence, tempered by the lemon juice and parsley? In the end, I decided that each element contributed an essential quality to this summer medley. Now, I make the tabbouleh salad at least once a month during the summer. It has become one of my primary summer rituals, repeated year after year with my loved ones.

This recipe is from Eating Well. I tend to increase the quantity of vegetables because their smokiness is so delicious. This summer, I may add different types of vegetables, such as summer squash, corn, bell peppers, or green beans. However, the original recipe is below. This salad is excellent as a side dish, but can also be used as a sandwich filling. I find that the leftovers keep well in the fridge for a day, if you don’t mind eating them cold. After a day, the salad gets a bit soggy.

Tabbouleh with Grilled Vegetables
from Eating Well
Makes 8 servings, 1 cup each (more if you add more vegetables)

1 cup bulgur
3/4 tsp. salt, divided
1 cup boiling water
2 medium zucchini, cut lengthwise into 1/2-inch-thick slabs
2 sweet onions, such as Vidalias, cut into 1/2-inch-thick rounds
3 large portobello mushroom caps, wiped clean
2 cups cherry tomatoes (I actually use grape tomatoes because I like them more)
3 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil, divided
Freshly ground pepper to taste
1/4 cup chopped walnuts
3 tbsp. lemon juice
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
1/2 cup chopped fresh mint

1) Place bulgur and 1/2 tsp. salt in a large, heat-proof bowl. Add the boiling water and stir. Cover with plastic wrap and let soak until tender and the liquid has been absorbed, about 30 minutes.
2) Meanwhile, preheat the grill to medium-high. Place a fine-mesh nonstick grill topper (i.e., a grilling wok) on the grill to heat.
3) Place the zucchini, onions, portobellos, and tomatoes in a single layer on a baking sheet. Brush both sides of the vegetables with 1 tbsp. of olive oil and sprinkle with the remaining 1/4 tsp. salt and pepper to taste.
4) Working in batches, grill the vegetables until tender, turning once or twice. Allow 8-10 minutes for zucchini and onions, 6-8 minutes for the mushrooms, and 2-3 minutes for the tomatoes.
5) Toast the walnuts in a small dry skillet over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until fragrant, 2-3 minutes. Be careful not to burn them--very unappetizing!
6) When the vegetables are cool enough to handle, coarsely chop the zucchini, onions, and mushrooms. Cut the tomatoes in half.
7) When the bulgur is tender, add the remaining 2 tbsp. of olive oil, lemon juice, parsley, and mint. Toss to mix. Add the vegetables and toss again to mix. Sprinkle with walnuts and serve.