Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Shawn Marie Treatment

It’s true. I confess it here: I can’t make a stir-fry to save my life. I have tried multiple times, but my stir-fries always end up either burnt or undercooked. I continually disappoint myself. There are probably solutions to my stir-fry woes, such as using a proper wok, more oil, prepping ALL the ingredients BEFORE applying the heat, and using more heat. I’ve shelved those possibilties for the time being, however, because truth be told, I’d rather steam than fry.

Why steam? Compared to stir-frying, steaming is just so easy. Chop a few vegetables, plop the steamer basket in a pot, add the vegetables and some water, cover, and heat. A few minutes later (and with no attention in the meantime from me!), voila! Lightly steamed vegetables, just enough to take off that raw edge. While stir-frying scares me, steaming soothes me. And it doesn’t leave me with bitter, burnt garlic.

With some steamed vegetables, it’s possible to make a decent imitation stir-fry, especially if you give those vegetables what I like to call The Shawn Marie Treatment. Shawn Marie, or SM for short, is my dear friend, a brilliant cook, and highly, highly opinionated when it comes to food. And everything else, for that matter. The Shawn Marie Treatment is simple: equal parts soy sauce, rice vinegar, and toasted sesame oil shaken together and drizzled over anything that needs some love. This Asian-style splash is very flavorful and terrific in lots of places; SM uses it to make the best spinach dish I’ve ever had in my life. (Note to self: Ask SM to make that spinach dish at next potluck.) Here, I use the Splash to dress up some everyday ingredients: brown rice, steamed vegetables, and scrambled eggs. I know it sounds humble, but it’s a meal worth anticipating once you’ve tried it. It’s good enough to motivate me to make my brown rice and Asian Splash ahead of time so that when I come home from work, all I have to do is steam some veggies, scramble a few eggs, and toss all the ingredients together in a bowl. Brilliant.

Vegetable and Brown Rice Medley with Scrambled Eggs

For Shawn Marie’s Asian Splash (makes 6 tbsp. or 3/8 cup):
2 tbsp. soy sauce
2 tbsp. rice vinegar
2 tbsp. toasted sesame oil

1) Add all ingredients to a small jar with a tight-fitting lid. Close the lid and shake like mad to mix the ingredients into an emulsion. Shake again before using.

For the main dish:
~1 c. raw broccoli florets
1 carrot, trimmed, peeled, and cut into chunky matchsticks
2 eggs
~1 c. cooked short-grain brown rice (I like Lundberg brand)
Several spoonfuls of Shawn Marie’s Asian Splash (shake before using), or to taste (recipe is above)

1) Steam the carrot and broccoli by layering the carrots and then the broccoli into one steamer basket in a pot. Add water (make sure the level of water is a little below the steamer basket so you aren’t boiling your vegetables instead of steaming them), cover the pot, and place over high heat. Steam for several minutes or until vegetables are tender crisp (in other words, tender but not limp and preferably with a little crunch to them still).
2) While the vegetables are steaming, scramble your eggs the way you like.
3) When the vegetables and eggs are done cooking, place them together in a big eating bowl. Add the brown rice (warmed up on the stovetop or in the microwave, if you like), a few spoonfuls of Shawn Marie’s Asian Splash, and toss to distribute. Taste and add more Splash if you want. Eat.

Monday, February 25, 2008

The Push

Whew! My goodness! What a night!

After all the worry, sweat, and tears, my first-author paper has been submitted! As in, off my desk for now. And you know what? I think that’s good enough for me.

And what a night it’s been! I’ve never actually been in the lab for thirteen hours straight. I’ve had a few ten-hour days and quite a few nine-hour days, but thirteen? That’s a record.

I spent most of the weekend cranking this bad boy out, writing, editing, revising, editing some more. I took breaks to grocery shop (fuel for the paper) and cook and sleep (a girl can’t read straight if she’s not getting any sleep), but honestly, this weekend I felt more focused than I have felt in a long, long time. And that felt good.

That’s not to say that today was a piece of cake. The difference is that I was prepared for today. I was ready for the marathon that would unfold in order to finish this paper. I can’t work thirteen-hour days all the time, but on occasion, when the stakes are high and things must be done, I’m there.

Today I even had my first vending machine eats! I skipped eating my beloved home-cooked dinner (not that I had much choice because dinner is at home and I am in lab), opting instead to eat vending machine fare at 9 PM: a package of peanuts and a “yogurt”-coated “granola” bar. Why do I put quotations around yogurt and granola? I think this bar is junk food masquerading as health food, trying to trick health-nuts like me into eating it during our moments of weakness (or hunger). You don’t fool me, bar! I won’t be eating the likes of you again any time soon! Although it quelled my hunger long enough to finish the paper, it was really really sweet. Too sweet, in my opinion. But the peanuts were good. They always are.

Writing a science paper is a highly collaborative process. Having now survived the submission and resubmission process with my graduate advisor, I just have one thing to say about Ravi: he is damn good at what he does. Some days he is my hero, other days he is my nemesis, but I am very fortunate to have the opportunity to learn from him. Regardless of the path I follow after graduate school, truly I am not the same person I was when I started my program years ago. He has taught me much and continues to be a source of encouragement and critical feedback.

And now, I’m off to trudge to the train station in the snow, which has been falling falling falling all evening in the biggest, fattest flakes I’ve ever seen in my life.

Good-night and sweet dreams, all.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

In Like a Lion, Out With a Lemon

I have to confess, I am a big fan of four-season living. Each season offers its own gifts, its own pleasures, and its own challenges. The glorious return of sun in the springtime, the long and easy days of summer, the cascade of leaves in the fall, and winter…

Winter can be hard to love, much like a difficult family member. Sometimes it seems like winter is angry, with its blustering winds and frigid temperatures. Winter can act withdrawn, like on the cold, silent nights when I walk home from work. Winter can be sad, such as the days when we see no sunshine at all through the thick cloud cover. In Chicago, winter starts in November and doesn’t leave until May. That’s six months of winter! No wonder I have friends who complain about my weather.

Yet, there is joy to be found in winter. There is no day in winter when it’s too hot to turn on my oven. My favorite stovetop dishes, soups and stews, taste best on a winter’s day. I delight in the kitchen in the winter: the smells, the warmth, the comfort of a cozy room. Last night, I realized I would sleep in the kitchen if I could! It wouldn’t be the first time someone did. My brother and his boyfriend turned the kitchen into makeshift sleeping quarters after helping me move into my very own apartment.

And if you pay attention, the days are already longer. There is more sunlight now than there was a month ago, and the same will be true next month. As the sun returns, I can feel my soul sighing happily, my body realizing that in time, winter’s cold will recede and I won’t brace myself every time I open the door. Spring returns, I am alive, and life is good.

In the meantime, it doesn’t hurt to have an emergency plan of action when winter is just too much to bear. Lately, I’ve been giving myself foot scrubs with a wonderful foot wash laced with walnut shell powder (it’s an exfoliant). It was a gift from my friend Anne; she knows how hard I am on my feet. Pedicures are nice if you have the time and the cash (neither of which I have in abundance, since I’m a graduate student), but a good foot scrub and massage does the trick nicely at home. There’s something about grooming your feet that seems defiant of winter and indulgent at the same time. It’s a remarkably good antidote to a blah winter mood.

One of the gifts that winter brings with it is cheap and delicious citrus fruits. True to my New Year’s resolutions, I’ve been eating loads of oranges, stocking up on them every time I go to the grocery store. Sunshine in a convenient and attractive orange wrapper, I say. They have been stunningly delicious: sweet, juicy, a tiny bit tart, and utterly satisfying. Lemons are great too, but does anyone eat them out of hand? Citric acid lovers, I salute you, but no thanks. I’ll take my lemon in the form of a tasty Greek Avgolemono Soup.

This soup is a great answer to the question I ask myself every weekend: what shall I eat with my bread and cheese? The rich and lemony broth is perfect for bread-dipping. Magically, it’s light and hearty at the same time. The combination of orzo pasta, eggs, and vegetables will fill you up, but you might find room for a second bowl. And trust me: it’s totally worth a second bowl.

Greek Avgolemono Soup
Adapted ever so slightly from this version in Vegetarian Times, January/February 2008

I adore this soup, and I am so grateful to Vegetarian Times for publishing it recently. To my taste, this soup is best either the day it’s made or the following day; the flavors are most vibrant when the soup is really fresh. In the future, I will probably add a bit of fresh lemon juice to my leftovers to add some sparkle.

2 tbsp. olive oil
2 medium leeks, ends trimmed off, the rest chopped into bite-sized pieces, and rinsed really well (see note below)
1 small onion or ½ med. onion, finely chopped (your call how much onion you want to add)
2 carrots, peeled and diced
6 cups vegetable broth
½ c. dry orzo pasta
2 large eggs
3 tbsp. lemon juice, plus more for the table if you like
¼ c. or a handful or two of chopped fresh parsley
1 tsp. dried oregano
Salt and pepper to taste

1) Heat the olive oil over medium heat in the bottom of a soup pot or a large skillet if your soup pot is not good for sauteeing (as mine is not). Add the leeks, onions, and carrots. Cover and cook for 5-7 minutes or until the vegetables have softened. Stir often.
2) Stir the broth into the vegetables. (If you use a skillet to cook the vegetables, transfer them first to a large soup pot and then add the broth.) Season with salt and pepper. Cover and reduce the heat to medium-low. Simmer for ~10 min. Uncover, add the orzo, cover, and cook 11 min. more or until the orzo is tender. Turn off the heat.
3) In a heatproof bowl or large measuring cup, whisk together the eggs and lemon juice. Add three ladles of the soup mixture to the egg mixture, whisking constantly as best you can. Whisk the egg mixture into the pot of soup and cook over low heat for 2-3 min. or until the soup is thickened. Do not let the soup boil during this time.
4) Add the parsley and oregano. Taste and add more salt and/or pepper if needed. Serve, offering more lemon juice at the table if lemon-lovers are present.

Note: Did you know that leeks are super-duper dirty inside? Because they grow in dirt, sand and grit gets lodged in the layers, particularly the “open” green layers. They need to be rinsed really well before you cook with them or you’ll add all that grit to your meal. I cleaned my leeks by chopping them up and then placing them in a sieve in a big bowl and rinsing multiple times with cold water. Fill the bowl up with water by running water over the sieved leeks, swish the leeks around, and let the dirt fall to the bottom. Lift up the sieve (and the leeks), drain out the dirty water, and repeat several times until there isn’t any more grit coming out of the leeks.

Monday, February 18, 2008

A Nigella Breakfast

Do you know who Nigella Lawson is?

I did not know the answer to this question before I tiptoed into the food-blogging world. Nigella, in some parts of the foodie world, is a goddess. Literally, they call her the Domestic Goddess. She’s a cookbook-writing, sensually food-promoting British woman. She is perhaps Britain’s answer to Martha Stewart, except that Nigella amps up the sex factor a millionfold. She is beautiful, but more importantly, her writing is gorgeous. Being the wordy chick that I am, I think it’s nice if someone is physically attractive. If they inspire me with their writing, then they can rock my world. (Gentlemen, take note.)

I first came across Nigella in Sarah Discovers How to Eat, a totally addictive blog about an Australian woman’s attempt to cook everything in Nigella Lawson’s How to Eat during a single year. I found myself completely hooked on Sarah’s blog, drooling over the lavish meals she cooked and cheering with her as she crossed off one recipe after another. Much as I loved the story, I felt lukewarm about adding Nigella into my cookbook rotation for two reasons. Sarah cooked a lot of meat dishes from How to Eat, so it seemed to me that Nigella might not have much to offer a vegetarian like myself. Secondly, Nigella’s recipes seemed very decadent to me: oodles of cream, butter, eggs, and sugar. I like a little decadence from time to time, but I’m also a bit of a health nut. I felt ambivalent about pursuing a kitchen style that seemed so very different from mine.

But much like taking a chance on an unconventional new love, I gave Nigella a chance. A tiny chance. In Borders one day, I sighed with pleasure over Nigella Express, her newest cookbook. I admired and stroked the glossy photographs; I drank in her witty, encouraging prose like a letter from a dear friend. It was the introduction to her breakfast chapter that stole my heart:

“But on weekends or when we’re not at work, it can be liberating to live beyond the routine. I’m also happier on weekends to eat lunch later and therefore want a bigger breakfast, an hour or so after I’ve tea’d myself into consciousness.” Nigella Lawson, Nigella Express.

What a wondrous idea: to live beyond the routine. To have the luxury of puttering around on the weekend, fixing pancakes or French toast or a breakfast casserole of some sort. To simply sit for more than five minutes, tea’ing myself into consciousness, without anxious thoughts invading my mind, reminding me: Experiments! Laundry! Your manuscript! The apartment is dirty! Order those chemicals! E-mail your boss! Buy groceries!

And above all: don’t forget to look like you are completely happy and totally satisfied with your life!

Oh my.

I like Nigella because she inspires me. She reminds me of things I already know: that cooking is pleasant. That food is a gift. That meals and life are meant to be savored. That breakfast should wake us up without exhausting us in our efforts to fix it.

Nigella’s newfound presence in my kitchen is a gift from Matt, the man whose absence from my kitchen leaves a little hole in my heart each time he leaves. (Ah, the joy of long-distance love.) After I oohed and aahed over Nigella Express in Borders, I walked away, empty-handed and sad. I convinced myself not to buy it, skeptical as I was about what Nigella had to offer a health-nutty vegetarian. Slightly mournfully, I told Matt about it later, certain that I did not need yet another cookbook. Matt is wise, though, and I believe he can distinguish between my needs and my wants. He is happy to fulfill my wants. I might even go so far as to say he is eager to fulfill them, inasmuch as one can from 600 miles away. And so it was that I found a copy of Nigella Express on my doorstep, delivered with love from Matt via Amazon.

He is amazing.

It turns out that Nigella does have something to offer me in the way of recipes. It’s true that there are a number of recipes in Nigella Express that probably don’t lend themselves to a vegetarian adaptation. Pleasantly, though, there ARE recipes that either are vegetarian or might inspire a vegetarian interpretation (curry, anyone?). I’m starting small, making easy breakfasty things and working my way up toward the entrees. But it’s hard to do that when the breakfast items are so good that I want to eat them for lunch and dinner! That’s definitely the case with the Avocado Bruschetta, a chunky seasoned avocado spread spooned onto good bakery bread. Nigella’s Go Get ‘Em Smoothie makes for a delicious late-afternoon snack, particularly before heading out on a Saturday night when you want to party into the wee hours of the morning. Sometimes that gentle bump of caffeine from the espresso powder hits the spot just right. Best of all, these two recipes pair together perfectly in the morning, balancing savory and sweet, chewy and sippable. Beyond the routine indeed.

Nigella’s Avocado Bruschetta
Serves 2
Adapted from “Avocado Bruschetta” in Nigella Express by Nigella Lawson

A note for singletons who might be making this just for themselves: the avocado mash keeps well in the fridge for at least a day, thanks to the lime juice. I had it for breakfast one day and lunch the next, and it was quite tasty both times. My version of this dish is just slightly simpler than Nigella’s. I hope she doesn’t mind.

1 perfectly ripe avocado
2 tsp. freshly squeezed lime juice
Salt and pepper to taste
6 slices of best-quality French bread (slice width-wise to make oval-shaped rounds)

1) Use a sharp knife to slice the avocado in half lengthwise around the pit. Twist gently to separate the two halves and remove the pit. Make lengthwise and widthwise cuts about every ½ inch—you are essentially dicing the avocado while it’s still attached to the peel. Gently scrape the avocado pieces into a bowl. Add the lime juice and a bit of salt and pepper. Mash everything together to make a clumpy spread. Taste and add more salt and/or pepper if needed.
2) Spread the avocado mash on each slice of bread and enjoy. If you are feeling ambitious, you can toast the bread. Not that you need my permission to do that!

Nigella’s Go Get ‘Em Smoothie
Serves 1
Adapted from “Go Get ‘Em Smoothie” in Nigella Express by Nigella Lawson

This smoothie is so delicious that every time I think about it, I want a glass of it in my hand RIGHT NOW! My version differs slightly from Nigella's, and recipes this good deserve to be shared.

1 ripe banana
2/3 c. cold milk
3 tsp. cocoa powder
3 tsp. malt powder
1 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. instant espresso granules (I’ve been using Medaglia D’oro brand, found conveniently at my neighborhood Jewel store)

1) Place all ingredients in the blender. Blend until thoroughly combined. Taste and add more cocoa, malt, sugar, or espresso as you like.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

In Honor of Love

I have the distinct honor of being surrounded, friendship-wise, with married couples. There’s Anne and James, Nicole and Andy, Daphna and Ian, Aaron and Jane, Amanda and Charlie (my sister-in-law and brother as well as parents of the love of my life, Lydia), and on and on. This coupledom is wonderful and cozy and lovely, but let’s face it: the single girl is the odd (wo)man out.

Yes, that single girl would be me.

Now, don’t misunderstand me. These pairs never make me feel uncomfortable simply by being a pair. I’m thrilled for every single one of them that they have found their person, their life partner, their soulmate if you believe in such things. I’m overjoyed. I got misty-eyed at their weddings. I think it’s great. But in a world filled with pairs, odd numbers can make things, well, odd. You can’t go on double-dates with your single friend. You can’t trade husband or wedding stories with her. You can’t ooh and ah over each other’s engagement rings. You can’t trade “couple” stories with her. You can’t even really grump to her about how annoying your husband is sometimes because guess what? She thinks you should be damn grateful to have a husband! Humph!

Am I jealous of my coupled friends? Damn right I am! I’m the kind of girl who would like to skip over that whole dating shebang and just be married. I am way too domestic and routine-oriented to really embrace the so-called “fun” of being single. I spend Saturday nights at home, cooking. I barely sleep in on the weekends. One drink makes me tipsy. I’d rather snuggle on the couch with someone familiar than bat my eyelashes at handsome strangers (although flirting with strangers is awfully fun…). The only real problem with wanting to be married is that there’s one thing missing: a groom.

Any volunteers?

The antidote, I have found, to this sort of jealousy is not to see yourself as fundamentally different than the individuals found in these happy couples. They have not unlocked some mysterious “secret” to happiness. They each have good days and bad days. They still have to go to work; they don’t spend the rest of their lives on perpetual honeymoon, making googly eyes at each other. Darn it, they still put their pants on one leg at a time! And truly happy couples are joyful company. Their love flows outward, like sunshine in which the rest of us can bask. Their physical affection is sweet and comforting, not gag-inducing and reeking of insecurity. In short, happy couples are good friends to each other, and that, I believe, is what love is all about.

Maybe I’m missing a sweetheart these days, but with these friends, I’ve got all the love I need.

Valentine’s Day can be a rough holiday for us singletons. We really don’t need to be reminded that we are not part of a pair. Truthfully, though, Valentine’s Day can be a rough one for the pairs, too! So much pressure to buy a mushy card, a dozen roses, an expensive but thoughtful and deeply romantic present or two…and all of this gift-buying less than two months after Christmas! Oy, the thought of it makes me grateful for my newest Valentine’s Day ritual, a fun and simple one I invented last year as an antidote to the inevitable bad feelings that arise when singlehood meets V-Day: homemade chocolate dessert. More specifically, recipe-testing a new chocolate dessert.

You have probably noticed that I’m not big on posting dessert recipes. Truth be told, I don’t make a lot of desserts. When I do make a dessert, it tends to be simple, basic, and honest, the sort of desserts that your grandma probably makes. (Bless those grandmas.) My sweet tooth is easily satisfied with something small, so my desserts tend to l-a-s-t f-o-r-e-v-e-r at home. On top of all this, food bloggers LOVE posting dessert recipes, so there’s no shortage of new recipes out there. But for today, in honor of love, I bring you my favorite go-to brownie recipe, the first recipe I made for my new V-day ritual.

Happy Valentine’s Day, dear reader. May your heart be filled with love and joy, whether you are cozily paired, happily single, or somewhere in between.

Excellent Brownies
Adapted from “Excellently Reasonable Brownies” in Passionate Vegetarian by Crescent Dragonwagon, who adapted her recipe from “Michael’s Fudge Brownies” in Chocolate and the Art of Low-Fat Desserts by Alice Medrich

I really love these brownies, so I bring you this recipe with great exuberance. Dense and fudgy, they are a little slice of chocolate heaven at the end of a meal. They are also, miraculously enough, a reasonable dessert, to paraphrase Crescent Dragonwagon. To me, reasonable means that they are sweet and chocolatey enough to satisfy without being so rich in sugar and fat that you’d wince to hear the carb and calorie count. Now, I know nobody wants to talk about calories when it comes to dessert, and I won’t whip out my calculator on you here, but I just think it’s nice to know that some desserts, in moderate-but-not-skimpy portions, can be perfectly reasonable indulgences.

Cooking spray
4 tbsp. (half a stick) of butter
1.5 oz. best-quality bittersweet chocolate, chopped (I like Ghirardelli brand here)
1 c. all-purpose flour
½ c. plus 1 ½ tsp. unsweetened cocoa powder
¼ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. baking powder
1 ¼ c. brown sugar (packed)
2 eggs
1 ½ tsp. pure vanilla extract
2 tbsp. miniature semisweet chocolate chips

1) Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F (325 degrees if you are using a glass baking pan, as I usually do).
2) Spray an 8-inch square baking pan with cooking spray.
3) In a medium saucepan, melt together the butter and chopped bittersweet chocolate over very low heat. Stir frequently.
4) While the chocolate is melting or immediately afterward, stir together the flour, cocoa, salt, and baking powder in a medium bowl.
5) Once the chocolate and butter are melted together, turn off the heat and stir in the sugar. Stir the eggs and vanilla into this mixture and beat until well combined. The batter will be really thick here, but don’t worry!
6) Scrape the chocolate mixture into the flour mixture (the batter will be EVEN THICKER here) and blend together using a wooden spoon. Stir in the chocolate chips.
7) Scrape the brownie batter into the prepared baking pan and spread it evenly with a spoon. Bake for ~20-25 minutes, or until the top has dried a little but the center is still a little gooey when poked with a toothpick. In her recipe, Crescent recommends that you wait until the brownies have cooled before cutting, but if you, like me, just can’t wait that long, let the brownies cool for ~20 minutes and then cheat and sample a brownie. This can be our little secret!

Monday, February 11, 2008

Ph.D. or Bust

Some people renew their wedding vows. I renewed my commitment to finishing my doctorate.

I have been in my neuroscience graduate program at Northwestern University for about four and a half years now. In that time, I’ve managed to complete my coursework, serve as a teaching assistant for a gigantic undergraduate biology course, and qualify for Ph.D. candidacy (making me an official “Ph.D. candidate”). Joyfully, I am an author on a recently published paper, my very first research publication! This is all very well and good, but the last few months of my thesis research have been brutally unproductive. I wish I could say they’ve been unproductive because I was busy playing Nintendo Wii or building snowmen or even just baking cookies. The truth of the matter, though, is that I’ve been busting my butt trying to finish experiments for the resubmission of my first-author paper.

My research advisor and I submitted this paper for the first time back in September 2007. A month later, we received a set of reviews from anonymous colleagues. The reviews were very odd: one review gave us far too much credit, saying that we had demonstrated certain things that we really hadn’t demonstrated so much as suggested as possibilities. The other review, while probably more accurate, was scathing and demanded that we produce an enormous amount of new evidence to support our hypotheses. My heart sank as I read the second review because I knew, from previous failed experiments, that it was going to be very difficult to produce all the results that would be necessary to please this reviewer.

I didn’t know that I would spend the next four months struggling to produce anything at all.

I nearly quit graduate school a few weeks ago. I didn’t really think I had the inner strength to enter the lab the next day, to try again. But I did. The next day, I did it again. And I keep going back. I keep trying. There is no magic in what I do; it’s simply persistence and a nagging ability to see hope in spite of the darkness. I have always been able to see the good and the bad in everything, and I always chafe when I’m expected to see something in less than its whole form. I now see my thesis research as a diamond-in-the-rough, a gem that has yet to be cut and polished to perfection. It is my job to do the cutting and the polishing, but there are a lot of craggy edges and dull surfaces involved here. It’s not always clear which experiments will yield crucial insights and which ones will turn out to be trash. Lately, they’ve all been trash.

Even so, it would be wrong to say that the last few months have been a waste of time. I have learned quite a bit, and in my more optimistic moments, I can say that my struggles now will pave the way to success in the future. In my pessimistic moments, I say, “Eh, forget it! I’m outta here!”

During these times when each day is a struggle, my daily routines fortify me: breakfast, reading the first e-mails of the day, the afternoon snack, the walk home at night in the cold, crisp winter air. I cook more when I’m struggling in the lab; in my kitchen, I can produce. I’m not much of an emotional eater, but I am an emotional chef. Puttering in the kitchen soothes me as much as a long walk does. Good food sustains and nurtures me physically and emotionally. It’s enough to get me through these dark days.

I think our struggles shape our characters; it is during the hardest times of our lives that we learn who we really are. We take what comfort we can, in whatever form it is offered. It is essential, however, that we are able to take care of ourselves. And I think that by being able to take care of ourselves, we are able to teach others how to care for us. This knowledge—of caring, of nurturing, of loving—is the stuff of which wisdom is made.

I like to think of myself as routine-oriented rather than routine-driven. I like routine—to a certain extent. Being the circadian biologist that I am, I like a good solid sleep-wake cycle and a predictable eating schedule. But I also like to stay up late sometimes, or eat a big brunch in lieu of breakfast and lunch. I like vacation days when I only eat two meals because I’m just not interested in eating three whole meals. I like the routine of a caffeinated beverage in the morning—something warm, maybe a little sweet, soothing and yet eye-opening at the same time. I love a good cup of coffee or tea. But most of all, I love my chai latte.

Now, I understand that there are people out there who actually don’t like chai, the spicy tea of Indian origin. These people puzzle me; what I really want to ask them is, “But have you tasted my chai latte? Because my chai latte is the stuff of which dreams are made: a richly flavorful tea blend with a shot of spiciness, a swirl of orange, a touch of sweetness, all balanced and blended together with a generous pour of milk. It’s heavenly.” Like a wish granted by a genie from the magic lamp, I perfected my chai latte formula over years of playing with chai, green tea, milk, and sugar. The recipe below is my favorite, and it’s good enough to comfort me most mornings.

Rose-Anne’s Perfect Chai Latte
Serves 1

Normally I roll my eyes at any recipe that calls itself “perfect.” How ridiculous! When it comes to cooking, there’s no such thing as universal perfection because every person’s tastebuds differ. This recipe is my perfect chai latte, the one that I like best. Feel free to play with it and make it into the chai latte that suits you best.

1 cup of fresh cold water
1 tea bag of Celestial Seasonings India Spice Chai (this chai is available in regular and decaf formulas; I always buy regular because I like the caffeine)
1 tea bag of Lipton Orange, Passionfruit, and Jasmine Green Tea
1/3 cup milk
1 rounded tsp. sugar (I like “hippie sugar,” large crystals of unrefined cane sugar)

1) Place the cup of cold water in a small pot or a teapot. Bring it just to a boil. While the water is heating, place the tea bags in a large mug with a spoon in it.
2) Pour the hot water into the prepped mug. Swirl the tea bags around and let them steep for ~5 minutes. I always plan to steep for 5 minutes, but while I’m puttering around and getting my cereal ready, 5 minutes often turns into 7 or 8. It always tastes fine to me.
3) When the tea is done steeping, lift the bags out of the water, use the spoon to press any liquid out of them, and discard the bags. Add the milk and sugar to the chai. Drink. (Of course, at this point, you can add more milk or sugar if you like. Sometimes I even add a tiny splash of heavy cream! So good.)

Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Uglier, the Better

Sometimes I think beauty is overrated. Take, for example, the stunning Brazilian man who works one floor up from me. He is breathtaking. I know I’m not supposed to use this word to describe a man, but he really is beautiful. So beautiful, in fact, that he attracts both men and women, all of whom find themselves smitten with his dashing good looks. Almost a year ago, this Brazilian and I caught each other’s eye, and we went out on two dates. Unfortunately, despite the amazing physical attraction, conversationally, I found myself stumbling and saying silly things just so that we wouldn’t be sitting in awkward silence. I tried to make jokes using sarcasm, and the sarcasm was lost on my foreign companion. We try to be friends now, and we are friendly, but it’s a bit strained. I can’t help it; I had a crush on him and it crushed me.

If only his physical beauty hadn’t overwhelmed my good judgment! Even in my lusty confused state, I knew that I wanted my romance served with a side of friendship. But I think friendship requires a certain degree of comfort, a certain degree of letting-your-guard-down, and that was just too difficult to do with the Hot Brazilian. My enounters with him left a bitter taste in my mouth, an anger that made me want to label him as boring, lame, shallow, manipulative. None of those things are true, but it pains me to admit that it was just lust, nothing more and nothing less.

My past and present lovers have not overwhelmed me physically the way the Hot Brazilian did. With other men, my affection for them enabled my attraction such that eventually, I saw them as lovers and friends. The friendship, as my friend Matt described it, was “transformative.” I don’t know how this type of attraction compares to the universal sex appeal exuded by the Hot Brazilian; is it more or less flattering to become attractive as your personality is revealed? Does it not imply that you aren’t very attractive at first glance? Or even if it isn’t very flattering, isn’t it still better to have a relationship built on a friendship? Doesn’t friendship make romance that much sweeter, that much more fun, that much more enduring?

For our first date, the Brazilian and I went to dinner at a local sushi restaurant, Kansaku. Before our date, I asked him what he loved about sushi. He told me he loved the fresh flavors and the beautiful way in which sushi is served. He was right; it was delicious and beautiful, and having dinner with him made me feel beautiful.

But because I could never get comfortable with him (and to be fair, he seemed ambivalent at best about dating me), I can’t imagine snuggling with him on the couch, or playing a card game with him, or even cooking with him. I can’t imagine him propping his feet up on a chair in my kitchen, keeping me company while I make us dinner. I can’t imagine just being with him the way that I have been able to just be with all of my past loves. He remains, in my mind, untouchable, unknowable, desirable only in an abstract sense. He is a thing of beauty to be admired but not taken home.

Give me someone I can take home. Give me someone who isn’t afraid of me, in all my flaws and beauties and quirky habits. Give me someone who isn’t afraid of my moods, my tears, my anger, my sadness. Give me someone who isn’t afraid of the ugly parts of me and my life. Give me someone who isn’t afraid to love me and who isn’t afraid to be loved.

Give me someone who will gobble up Ugly Chili Fries with me and moan about how good and deliciously ugly they are.

For the past several weeks, the weather and my chaotic schedule have put a crimp on my frequent grocery shopping trips. My pantry is feeling the pinch, and I have called upon my creative juices so that I don’t have to eat leftovers indefinitely. An off-the-cuff miracle occurred on Monday night when hot and crispy roasted potatoes were paired with thinned Black Bean Dip and topped with thick slices of sharp cheddar cheese, cut straight off the cheese block. And oh, boy, is it ugly. To make the Black Bean Dip a bit more saucy, I thinned it with some water, which turns it a really unappetizing grey color. When it’s dolloped on top of the potatoes, it looks more like a third-grade art project than dinner. But trust me on this one, friends. These Ugly Chili Fries are not to be missed. Eat them alone, with gleeful pleasure, or share them with someone special, but do be sure that this person is worthy of your lovely company and your ugly food.

Ugly Chili Fries
Serves 2

4 medium red-skinned potatoes, scrubbed, rinsed, and dried, gnarly parts peeled off, and cut into large clumsy wedges
2 tbsp. of olive oil or garlic-infused olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
1 recipe’s worth of Black Bean Dip
Some water
Several chunky slices of cheddar cheese (to taste)

1) Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
2) After the potatoes are prepped, toss them in a large bowl with the oil. Add salt and pepper to taste and toss again to distribute the seasonings.
3) Spread the potatoes in a single layer on a roasting pan. Roast the potatoes for 30-40 minutes until golden brown, crispy, and cooked thoroughly. Halfway through the cooking (~20 minutes, or whenever you think of it), use a pancake flipper to flip the potatoes so that both sides have a chance to brown nicely.
4) While the potatoes are cooking, heat up the Black Bean Dip in a small sauce pan. Add a bit of water to thin the dip into more of a saucelike consistency; you want to be able to spread the beans over the potatoes. Taste and add salt and pepper if needed.
5) When the potatoes are done, pull them out of the oven and divide them between two plates. Dollop the beans over the potatoes and lay a few slices of cheese over that. Serve immediately.

Monday, February 4, 2008

I Dream of Onions

It’s not true.

I don’t really dream of onions. I am one of those blessed souls who sleeps like a rock, whose eyes gently shut and she drifts off into unconsciousness for the next eight hours. If I dream at all, I don’t remember it the next day.

But oh, do I daydream! Mostly about food and sex. As a biologist, I feel these daydreams are perfectly defensible, seeing as how food and sex are major biological forces. I really need food and sex. And it’s cyclical: sex drives creatures to reproduce (which, in my opinion, is really the only “meaning of life” in any concrete sense of the phrase), and reproduction requires huge amounts of energy, i.e., food, and so after sex, the best thing to do is eat.

Ahem. As I was saying about onions, clearly onions belong in the food category rather than the sex category. Or is it clear? I once dated a guy who didn’t like onions. K, as we shall call him, ate an entire bowl of my homemade soup, lavishing enthusiastic praise upon it, but he meticulously avoided every piece of onion in that bowl. Sacrilege! There was a sad, sorry pool of uneaten onions that made me weep as I flushed them away. In his defense, K claimed to like the taste of onions but not the eating of onions themselves. A little bizarre, I know, but palates are like that. Poor K: he’s missing out, and not just because he let a good one like me get away!

Smart men, like my friend Matt, know better. I’ve already shared with you Matt’s Spinach and Orange Salad, garnished with the thinnest of raw onion slices. That man can, and does, seduce with onions. Now allow me to introduce to you another bold salad companion, the scallion.

In one word, raw scallions are best described as potent. They are sharp, almost hot in flavor. When left raw and wild, scallions impart a spicy green note in an otherwise tame salad of lightly dressed steamed carrots and broccoli. They are the soaring electric guitar above the rhythm section of produce. Scallions are powerful.

And so today I bring you my newest favorite salad, Steamed Vegetable Salad with Scallions. Consider this part of my on-going effort to keep you eating green stuff all winter long. Perhaps steamed vegetables sound like diet food. Let me assure you this salad is not meant to punish you! It’s a lovable combination of two everyday vegetables, broccoli and carrots, which are lightly steamed separately, then tossed with a tablespoon or two of vegan Caesar dressing and a chopped scallion. Each bite is laced with the sweetness of carrot, the subtle earthiness of broccoli, the savory richness of the dressing, and the spicy heat of scallion. It’s a downright dreamy salad.

Perhaps the only downside to eating raw scallions is the scary breath and lingering flavor they leave behind in the mouth. This, I must confess, I do not enjoy. To tame the lingering wild scallion, I like to follow dinner with a big mug of mint tea. It does wonders for the breath and the belly.

Steamed Vegetable Salad with Scallions
Inspired by and adapted from “Winter Vegetable Salad with Chickpeas” in Passionate Vegetarian by Crescent Dragonwagon
Serves 1 (multiply as needed)

1-2 carrots, thickly sliced on the diagonal
1 head of broccoli florets, chopped into bite-sized pieces
1 scallion, thinly sliced into rings
1-2 tbsp. Spectrum Naturals Vegan Caesar Dressing
Salt and pepper to taste

1) Either separately or in succession, steam the carrots and broccoli until tender-crisp. I recommend not steaming them together because the broccoli will be tender-crisp much faster than the carrots. By the way, “tender-crisp” really just means to taste. I think of it as steaming vegetables to take the raw edge off of them, soften them up a little.
2) Place the steamed carrots and broccoli in a medium-sized mixing bowl. Add the scallions and dressing. Toss to combine. Taste, add a bit more dressing and/or salt and pepper if needed. Toss again and repeat until the seasonings are just right to you.

* As an aside, feel free to play with the carrot-to-broccoli ratio. I like a one-to-one ratio, but it all depends on the size of your carrots and the size of your head of broccoli.