Sunday, October 28, 2007

This Could Be Love

I wasn’t expecting this.

Oh, sure, I’ve sung the praises of spices before. I adore red crushed chile peppers. I’ve always liked cumin. Basil and I are buddies. Cinnamon adorns my cereal every day.

But coriander? We’ve barely met, and I think I’m in love.

I didn’t even own a bottle of coriander until two weeks ago when I made this soup for Matt and me. Always eager to show off my culinary prowess for this man, I splurged on coriander, a spice that I had previously deemed unnecessary in my cooking. If I tried a recipe that called for coriander, I just left it out. Hey, I’m frugal! And I’m adventurous enough in my cooking that I will change a recipe right out of the gate. None of this “try the recipe first as written without changing anything.” No, it’s my cooking and I can do anything I damn well please in my own kitchen!

But coriander, you have humbled me. One whiff and I was astonished: your scent is surprisingly floral with peppery undertones. And you took what I thought might be a quick, decent black bean soup and you made it a masterpiece of spice and savory goodness.

Coriander, I do hope we can see each other again…soon!

This black bean soup perked up a cold, drizzly end to a disappointing week. I’ll spare you the gory details of how my manuscript got skewered by a reviewer. Some tears were shed. I briefly considered quitting science to join the circus. Truth be told, I’ve always wanted to be a flying trapeze artist! Science, however, is my passion, and I want to see my name in print. So now, it’s time to kick my experiments into high gear to get this project finished. It’s time to rock and roll. In that spirit, I made this delicious black bean soup to end my week on a good note, but I wasn’t expecting it to be swoon-worthy! Oh yes. This soup is hearty and spicy, packed full of black beans, savory vegetables, sweet corn, and rice. It’s so rich and flavorful that I didn’t even top it with cheese because I didn’t want anything to interfere with the soup. You, however, can top it with cheese or anything else you like. I ate my soup with fried pita chips and slices of Organic Valley Monterey Jack cheese. It was wonderful.

Black Bean Soup with Rice
Adapted from “Smoky Black Bean and Rice Stoup,” Express Lane Meals by Rachael Ray
Serves 5-7

2 tbsp. olive oil
1 bay leaf
2 celery ribs, chopped into bite-sized pieces
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, chopped
1 cup frozen corn kernels
2 15-oz. cans black beans
1 tbsp. ground coriander (my love…)
½ tbsp. chili powder
1 tsp. ground cumin
Several shakes of red crushed chile peppers (optional)
1 15-oz. can diced tomatoes
1 8-oz.. can tomato sauce
Salt and pepper to taste
1 quart vegetable broth
1 cup white rice (I used white basmati rice here)

1) If you have a big soup pot in which you can saute, use it here. If your soup pot, like mine, is not very good for sauteeing, use a large skillet. In either case, pour the olive oil into your sauteeing pot or skillet and heat over medium heat. Add the bay leaf, celery, onions, and garlic. Cook for several minutes until the vegetables have softened and everything is nice and fragrant.
2) At this point, if you sauteed in a skillet, transfer the contents of the skillet to a big old soup pot. Add the corn and one can of black beans with their beany liquid. Add half of the other can of black beans, then mash the remaining beans in the can with a fork. Scrape the mashed beans into the soup pot.
3) Add the spices, tomatoes, tomato sauce, and stock. Taste the broth and adjust the seasonings as you like with salt, pepper, or more of the spicy spices.
4) Crank up the heat underneath the pot and bring the soup to a boil. Add the rice, cover the pot, and simmer the soup for 15-20 minutes until the rice is cooked to your liking. Fish out the bay leaf if you can find it. It will probably be floating on the top of the soup.
5) Serve and swoon.

LEFTOVER NEWS BULLETIN: This soup makes delicious leftovers, but the rice will slurp up the broth! It turns this “soup” into more of a “stew.” The water absorption changes the texture of the rice (for example, my basmatic rice was so greedy that it split itself open), but I’m not that picky about the rice here. If you are and plan to eat this soup later as leftovers, you might consider cooking the soup and the rice separately and then adding a scoop or two of cooked rice to each serving. This technique will make for a brothier soup because if the rice is cooked separately, it won’t absorb any of the soup’s broth. I think it will be delicious nonetheless. If you don’t like rice at all, you could just make the soup as written and leave the rice out altogether, yielding a rich, brothy, beany soup. Yum.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Fall in Love with Dan Cohen

Hello hello! For those of you who are returning visitors, you may have noticed a new addition to Life, Love, and Food: The Corner of Shameless Promotion. Most of this blog is devoted to good cookin’ and good eatin’ with occasional rants about bad behavior. But one of the great joys of cooking is the soundtrack. In addition to the hiss of sauteeing onions and the buzz of a food processor, I almost always listen to music while I cook. Cooking and music have a synergistic effect: instant relaxation! The type of music can be anything from classic to rock, acoustic to electronic, popular to obscure. Eclectic, no?

The latest addition to my cooking soundtrack is the self-titled debut album from Dan Cohen. In the interest of full disclosure, I will confess that a dear friend gave me the CD as a gift. There, I’ve said it. You can stop reading now if you think I’ve been bribed into writing this plug. But I promise, dear reader, if this CD made a better drink coaster than a music album, I would not waste your time telling you about it. Friendship will not earn anyone a spot in the Corner of Shameless Promotion! Fortunately, Dan Cohen has earned his spot. Put simply, Dan Cohen is TALENTED. And he LOVES WOMEN. Or at least he sings like he does! Dan Cohen the album is a collection of country tunes that range from the sassy to the sublime. The set is as eclectic as my taste in music: several country-rock numbers, a few beautiful instrumentals-only pieces, a dark melody about the depths of addiction, a love song or two, and finally “Even Us,” which is possibly the saddest song in the world about starting over after heartbreak.

My very favorite song on the album is a jazzy little number called “Hope You Don’t Change Your Mind.” Light-hearted and playful, this song is the one my heart will sing the next time I fall in love. Falling in love is a little like playing on a teeter-totter; it’s smoother and much more fun when each person takes a turn pushing love off the ground. And once you’ve fallen in love, there’s “Lullaby,” a tender ballad in which the narrator promises the world to his beloved only to reveal at the end that his intentions are more noble than his abilities. Fall in love with Dan Cohen and you will fall in love with an artist whose music traverses the mountains and valleys of hope and loss. Welcome to the soundtrack of life.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

A Cure for the Spaced-Out Scientist

Somewhere between manuscript submissions, my ability to concentrate evaporated. I would sit in front of a new Cell paper and the words would swim around on the page. E-mails had to be read multiple times to find the gist. And forget listening to five days’ worth of talks at the Neurobiology of Drosophila meeting; I had to excuse myself from a number of talks because there was no point in sitting through a talk when all I could do was daydream about how much I love fall. I even lost my patience with Passionate Vegetarian, my very favorite book to read during times of high stress and anxiety. I simply could not retain new information. Honestly, it was scary. Could my brain be too full to learn anything new? Even if that were possible (which I doubt it is), I had to believe that my lack of focus was the direct result of the intensive writing that has been my work life for the past two months. So in short order, I needed to regain my focus so I could move on with experiments and grant revisions (sigh…).

As I’ve said before, I am a firm believer in the power of kitchen therapy. Too many days without cooking makes me cranky and sad, while a good kitchen project lifts me out of my dark mood and sends me on my happy way. The problem with kitchen therapy is that it requires supplies: groceries. And sometimes life is so hectic that a trip to the grocery store seems impossible or overwhelming because 1) I have no time or 2) I am too exhausted to shop. At this point, I have no choice but to get creative with a limited amount of time and ingredients. My solution this time? Eggs. Specifically, egg burritos.

I actually did find some time to shop for groceries last week. During this trip, I was forced to choose a tortilla other than my normal Wild Oats whole wheat tortillas, and thus I found myself purchasing a package of Cedar’s Six Grain Mountain Bread. These “Mountain Breads” (aka tortillas) are delicious! Now I’m hooked: these 10-inch multigrain tortillas are both chewy and tender AND they have 5g of fiber and 7g of protein per tortilla! Quite impressive for an edible wrapper. Best of all, the 10-inch diameter makes wrapping up a generous amount of filling a cinch. I like a lot of filling in my burritos, so I need a big wrapper. After all, isn’t the best part of a burrito the stuff you put inside the tortilla?

And so it was that I found myself puttering around the kitchen, piling scrambled eggs with salsa into my new favorite tortillas, trying to regain my focus and my peace of mind. I figured the egges would help with the task: eggs are a nutritional powerhouse*, loaded with protein, vitamins, minerals, and choline** (used to make the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, an essential component for nervous system function). And while eggs are high in cholesterol, Walter Willett’s research*** suggests egg-eating does not play a significant role in the frequency of heart attacks in the general population. So bring on the eggs! But for health and ethical reasons, I recommend purchasing organic, free-range eggs. These eggs are often of superior nutritional quality (depending on the composition of the hen’s diet), and they are made by hens that are treated much more humanely than their non-free-ranging counterparts.

Egg Burrito for One
Serves 1

I love egg burritos. They are fast, reasonably healthy, and satisfying. The key to an excellent egg burrito is to use high-quality ingredients. When I make egg burritos, I tend to keep things simple because when I make them, I am too tired to fuss with a complicated filling. But feel free to adapt the basic recipe to your own tastes. For example, the filling could be made more substantial by the addition of beans, cooked vegetables (roasted potatoes might be particularly tasty here), cooked rice, or more cheese. If you use a nice 10-inch tortilla to wrap everything up, you’ll have plenty of room for the extras.

Nonstick cooking spray
2 eggs, preferably organic eggs from free-ranging hens
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
¼ - ½ oz. Neufchatel cheese (lower fat cream cheese), cut into tiny chunks
Several tablespoons of your favorite salsa
1 “slice” of Cedar’s Six Grain Mountain Bread
Several leaves of fresh cilantro, optional

1) Preheat the oven to 300˚ F.
2) Crack the eggs into a bowl and scramble them with a fork.
3) Spray a skillet lightly with non-stick spray. Heat the skillet over medium heat for about thirty seconds. Add the eggs to the skillet and push them around with a pancake flipper to coat the skillet with uncooked eggs.
4) Add some salt and freshly ground black pepper to the eggs while they are cooking.
5) Place the mountain bread on a cookie sheet and put it in the preheated oven to warm.
6) Before the eggs are done, add the Neufchatel cheese and mix it into the eggs. Continue cooking eggs until they are done to your liking.
7) When the mountain bread is warm, remove it from the oven. Pile the eggs in a line down the center of the bread and top with salsa and cilantro if desired. Roll it up burrito-style and eat immediately.

So did the egg burrito cure me of my spaciness? Perhaps the effect was not immediate, but I am feeling more like my old self these days. It’s a relief—because I have experiments to do, manucripts and grants to revise, and of course, new recipes to be tried!

*I found this summary of the nutritional content about eggs in Mollie Katzen’s Sunlight Café.
**Neuroscience nerd bonus.
***I have paraphrased a quote from Walter Willett found in Mollie Katzen’s Sunlight Café. For more about Willett’s research written by Willett himself for a lay audience, check out Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy: The Harvard Medical School Guide to Healthy Eating , an excellent summary of groundbreaking nutritional findings based on several huge epidemiological studies.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Two Tales of One Soup

I am a cookbook-lover. One of the wonderful things about being a cookbook-lover is that on occasion people will just give me cookbooks. It’s not my birthday, it’s not Christmas, but because people know I love cookbooks, they enthusiastically donate books to my kitchen library. It’s quite nice, really. In turn, I will happily cook for them, especially if they take the trouble to visit my kitchen in person.

This story unfolds over several hundred miles and two trips traveled by two different people. During my trip home to Michigan last month, my dear friend Anne gave me a copy of The Cook’s Encyclopedia of Vegetarian Cooking by Linda Fraser. This charming little green cookbook is chockful of enticing recipes such as Fresh Tomato, Lentil, and Onion Soup, Spicy Bean and Lentil Loaf, and Butternut Squash and Sage Pizza. Anne passed this book on to me because she already had a copy of it. Nevertheless, I was thrilled by the gift and couldn’t wait to cook with it.

My brother and sister-in-law were more than happy to let me cook from this book in their kitchen. After a weekend of celebrating little Lydia’s first birthday, we were all exhausted, but I hadn’t done much cooking in several days and I was missing the smell of freshly chopped onions and garlic. So on a fall evening in early September, with just a slight chill in the air, I made a batch of Garlic, Chickpea, and Kale Soup. This soup is rich rich RICH (that’s what happens when you add 2/3 of a cup of heavy cream to a soup that makes 4-5 servings!), but it is wonderful. To enjoy that beautiful fall evening, my brother suggested we have a picnic, so we packed up our soup and a leftover loaf of delicious bakery bread and headed over to the local nature preserve. It was one of those evenings that is just perfect in its simplicity: hot soup, flavorful bread, and the best of company with whom to share your food. Quietly, together, we savored our supper amid the trees and the flocks of birds soaring above our heads.

After making this soup for my family, I knew it was good, but I had no idea about its powers of seduction. Last weekend, my friend Matt came up to Evanston from North Carolina to visit. Matt is the kind of friend every woman should have: he’s funny, charming, empathetic, intelligent, and wise. And he’s Southern! Our relationship had existed in the space between friends and lovers for months. Distance allows a relationship to settle comfortably into that space. But I knew that his visit would beg the question, and I didn’t know what the answer would be. The answer, it turns out, is soup.

One of the things I love best about Matt is that he is a cook. Men who can cook are sexy. Men who can cook are comfortable hanging out in the kitchen, even when they aren’t cooking. While Matt didn’t do much more than chop some potatoes during his visit, he proved himself among the best of kitchen company. And that made me adore him just enough to provide the answer he was seeking.

Garlic, Chickpea, and Kale Soup
Adapted from “Garlic, Chickpea, and Spinach Soup” in The Cook’s Encyclopedia of Vegetarian Cooking by Linda Fraser
Makes ~4-5 entrée-sized portions

This soup is a hearty, rich, full-meal soup. Lightly spiced with cumin and coriander, it takes flavors and ingredients from Middle Eastern cooking and dolls them up with a generous pour of heavy cream. It’s a soup to make for a special evening, a soup to share with lovers and loved ones. Serve it with a great bread and you’re all set.

2 tbsp. olive oil
4 garlic cloves, chopped
1 large onion, chopped
2 tsp. ground cumin
2 tsp. ground coriander
5 c. vegetable stock
4 medium-sized potatoes, chopped into bite-sized pieces (peeling the potatoes is optional—I wouldn’t peel unless the peel is gnarly and unappetizing)
1 15-oz. can of chickpeas, drained
1 tbsp. cornstarch
2/3 c. heavy cream(!)
2 tbsp. tahini
1 bunch of kale (or more to taste*), leaves washed, stripped from the stems, and torn into bite-sized pieces
Red crushed chile peppers to taste
Salt and pepper to taste

1) Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a skillet or a large soup pot. Add the garlic and onion to the oil and cook for about 5 minutes or until the garlic and onions are softened and golden brown.
2) Stir in the cumin and coriander and cook for another minute.
3) If you are using a skillet to saute the onion, transfer the onion, garlic, and spices into a soup pot. Otherwise, pour the vegetable stock into the pot with the onion and friends. Add the chopped potatoes and bring everything to a boil. Turn the heat down to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes. Add the chickpeas and simmer for another 5 minutes. Check the tenderness of the potatoes by tasting one; if the potatoes are tender, you’re ready for the next step. If the potatoes are not quite tender enough for you, simmer for a few more minutes until they are perfect.
4) Measure out the cream by pouring it into a liquid measuring cup. Add the cornstarch and tahini to the cream and use a spoon to mash and blend them together. This mixture might still be a bit chunky after you’ve mixed for a few minutes, and that’s okay. When you add it to the hot soup, the heat will help it blend into the soup nicely.
5) Add the cream mixture to the soup and stir. Add the kale to the soup, stir, bring it to a boil, and simmer for about 2 minutes. Season the soup to taste with crushed red chile peppers, salt, and pepper.
6) Serve in big bowls, preferably accompanied by thick slices of bread to mop up the creamy broth.

*Both times I’ve made this soup, my cooking companions and I just piled several cups of torn kale into a bowl and then dumped it into the soup. Because the kale wilts into the hot soup, you don’t need to be very precise about how much you add.

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!

Monday, October 1, 2007

And One More Thing...

Happy October, everyone! This is my favorite month of the year, for reasons that will be revealed in good time...

Seriously! Monday to Friday Cooking

Here’s what happens on a typical night after I finish my workday: if I don’t work out at the gym or outside, I try to walk home to get some much-needed fresh air after a day inside the lab. I walk for 2+ miles to my apartment and collapse inside the door. At this point, I’m usually starving and exhausted. I need food, good food. And I need it fast. If I actually make something more than a salad, the preparation needs to be easy and minimal. After working all day, I don’t want to spend an hour washing dishes after dinner. But I do like to cook something substantial for dinner at least a few nights a week. The rest of the week, I feast on leftovers and salads.

Now that I’m in the thick of my graduate work, it has become necessary for me to develop my own cooking strategies to ensure that I eat well throughout the week, even during my busiest times. When we have the least amount of time to prepare good, nutritious meals, eating well becomes even more critical: we need good food to stay healthy and energetic if we are to succeed in such stressful times. The meals that I eat during these times are nothing fancy, but they please and sustain me. One such dish is my Penne Pasta with Ricotta-Pesto Sauce. Yes, pasta is a classic go-to dish for busy working people, and for good reason: it’s fast, delicious, and satisfying. And now, with all the new whole-grain, multigrain, and “blended” pastas, I think pasta has more to offer nutritionally. (By the way, “blended” pasta is not pasta that has been pureed in a blender. Rather it’s pasta that is made from a combination of ingredients such as multiple grains and legumes.)

So even if you are seriously busy Monday to Friday, you might still have time for decent food. This pasta dish is so quick and easy, I’ll often pick up the ingredients on my way home from work and make it that night. And I thank my lucky stars that it makes leftovers so I don’t have to cook dinner the next night unless I want to!

Penne Pasta with Ricotta-Pesto Sauce
Makes ~3 generous servings

2 c. dried penne pasta, preferably a brand with some fiber and protein (I recently discovered delicious Barilla Plus Penne, a multigrain pasta with 4g of fiber and 10g of protein in a 56g serving…now if only I had a kitchen scale so I could figure out the volume equivalent of 56g of dried pasta…)
¼ c. ricotta cheese
¼ c. best quality fresh basil pesto (I like Cibo Naturals Classic Basil Pesto)
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 salt and pepper to taste to pasta. 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 I am cooking this pasta just for myself, I chop just one tomato and top my pasta bowl with it. I save the other tomatoes for the leftover pasta so that way the tomato is always really fresh and tasty. This pasta keeps well for several days in the refrigerator.