Tuesday, June 23, 2009
Greetings from an eastbound CTA train, dear reader! I’m aboard the Blue Line, enjoying a dusky Chicago skyline and looking forward to a night of sleeping in my own bed. I have completed my interview circuit and now I have a week to decide between two job offers.
I am of course grateful to have two awesome positions on the table, but more than that, I’m grateful I won’t be traveling anywhere for at least a month (hopefully longer, but I’ll try not to be greedy here). Traveling is exhausting; traveling for job interviews is strange sort of exhaustion. I’ve found that as long as I am “on,” I don’t feel the exhaustion at all. But as soon as I’m left alone, I collapse in a heap on the hotel bed, utterly spent by the sheer effort it takes to be pleasant, enthusiastic, and brilliant. My postdoc interviews have had this lovely break between late afternoon and dinner during which I get dropped off at a hotel and I can crawl into bed for a nice nap. Right before that, I strip off all my fancy interview clothes: high heels(!), stockings, skirt, conservative little sweater. My whole body breathes a sigh of relief and for a few blissful hours, we forget about science and trying to impress people. I wake up later, drunk with sleep, but refreshed and ready to rock and roll.
In science, we have a saying from Louis Pasteur that comes in handy: Chance favors the prepared mind. I think it’s also applicable to traveling. It’s important to plan wisely when trying to catch a plane. One never knows when she’ll be stranded in the Eastern Iowa Airport for three hours with nary a homemade crumb to eat, forced to suffer bad cheese quesadillas at a bar where not even a single salad is vegetarian. (I’m not bitter, really!) Traveling is hard on us control freaks because we give up so much of the thing that makes us tick: predictability. Who knows if the plane will be on time, if the weather will be favorable for airborne cruising, if the person sitting next to us on the plane will have a few cracks in his windshield? If I were a praying sort of person, I would pray that my god work these things out for me ahead of time, but instead, I just pack a lunch and know that even if everything else goes wrong, at least my noontime meal will be good.
As misfortune would have it though, an airborne lunch presents its own difficulties. My entire repertoire of soups is off-limits, unless I measure out an itty-bitty three-ounce portion to conform to TSA regulations on liquids. Anything else worth considering must taste good at room temperature; otherwise lunch will be disappointing. Lunch must not require refrigeration or else I can count on a rather unpleasant visit to the emergency room later that day. No meal is worth that.
So what’s left? In a word: salad. When I travel, salad is my friend. It doesn’t mind if it has to sit in my bag for a few hours. It won’t complain if it gets tossed around a bit on the journey. The flavors wait patiently for me to dig my fork into them. It easily passes TSA inspection, unlike my laptop computer which was swabbed for chemicals on my way to North Carolina last week. I don’t even know what I would have done if they’d confiscated that! But my salad didn’t even get a second glance, which made my belly happy. It would have been a much less pleasant trip if they’d taken my salad away, especially since my super-early morning made my belly grumble by about 11 AM.
Right before a trip, I am usually running around like a maniac, trying to get ten thousand things done before I leave. A salad that can be prepped well ahead of time is my traveling dream. How about a salad that keeps so well in the fridge that it can be dinner one night and—almost without thinking—a skybound-lunch the next day? Dear reader, I give you the recipe for an almost-magical wheat berry salad, courtesy of Vegetarian Times. It was featured in an article on make-ahead foods that keep and travel well. My heart pounds in excitement just thinking about this recipe! It features a jumble of unusual ingredients: chewy wheat berries, herbally crunchy fennel, salty olives, plump sweet raisins, creamy cheese, and the almost Cheez-It®-like flavor of roasted pistashios. (Surely I’m not the only one who thinks pistashios taste like Cheez-Its®?) If you’re fancy, you can serve the salad over a bed of crisp greens, but I have found that this salad is great even without the greens or the cheese. It’s a salad that tries to cover all its flavor bases, and it could have been a horrible clash of tastes, but somehow, it works. Magically, it works.
Even though I don’t plan to board any more planes for a while, I plan to make this salad all summer long. Maybe when I make my next bowlful, I’ll use that time to contemplate which lab I should join. If the salad helps me make that decision, I’ll declare it magical indeed.
Summertime Wheat Berry Salad
Adapted from Vegetarian Times
Makes 4-6 main-dish servings
1 1/2 cups cooked wheat berries, cool or at room temperature (start with 1/2 cup dried wheat berries)
1 15-oz. can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
1 small bulb fennel, sliced as thinly as you can manage
1/4 cup raisins
1-2 shallots, finely chopped
8 olives, any kind (pick your favorite; I like Kalamata olives), pits removed and coarsely chopped
Several cups of chopped greens, such as spinach or Romaine lettuce
4-6 oz. cheese (pick your favorite), chopped into large dice (I use ~1 oz. per serving)
1/4 cup roasted pistashios, or more to taste, coarsely chopped
4 tbsp. balsamic vinegar
4 tbsp. honey
1) In a large bowl, toss together the wheat berries, chickpeas, fennel, raisins, shallots, and olives. Refrigerate this mixture if you aren’t serving the salad at this time. Otherwise…
2) When you’re ready to serve the salad, plate the greens. Pile a large spoonful or two of the wheat berry mix on top of the greens. Scatter some diced cheese and pistashios over that.
3) Whisk together the balsamic vinegar and honey. Drizzle some of this sweet-and-tangy dressing over the salad and serve.
*Travel version: Prepare a single serving as directed above but place the ingredients in a travel-ready container. This mixture will keep well at room temperature for a few hours, but I’m sure it’s better if “room temperature” isn’t disgustingly hot.