Monday, August 25, 2008

Waiting, with Carrot Soup for Company

I love this time of year. Technically it’s still summer, and thank goodness for that. I’ve got picnics to pack, skimpy shirts to wear, and peaches to eat. But fall—a tiny hint of it, just barely perceptible as the sun sets a little earlier each day—has nudged its way into my mind, and all I can think about is the color orange.

Orange is THE color of fall, and a beautiful one at that. Orange is a happy color, a color that radiates joy and boldness. Orange shouts immoderately, “Look at me! I’m ORANGE!” It can be a little overwhelming, but immoderate amounts of joy will do that to a person. Contrary to what might be the popular opinion, I think orange looks great on many people: it brightens the face and flatters the complexion, making its wearer appear youthful and perky. Even almost-redheads like me can get away with wearing orange—or so I tell myself every time I walk out of a store with another orange shirt.

With fall and orange in mind, I’ve been fantasizing about pumpkin pancakes and pumpkin scones, pumpkin soup and pumpkin quiche. As Matt said, though, about something entirely different, “You gotta wait wait wait wait wait.” So no pumpkins yet, dear reader. Instead, my belly and I turned our attention to a different orange, one that works perfectly in summer or fall, served cold or hot, with bread and cheese or maybe with a tangy little salad: the perfect carrot soup. I have found it, and I humbly (or not so humbly, given that I am calling it “THE perfect”) present it to you for your culinary scrutiny.

I’m not shy about using cream and creamy things when I think it lets a tasty dish soar to new heights. Cream is delicious! To my mind, it works best when you know how to make it work for you. It is a soothing ingredient, an indulgence best reserved for special meals and the occasional splash into morning coffee. Cream takes the edge off searing spices and caresses tart-sweet tomatoes. It adds welcome richness to my sister-in-law’s frittatas and crustless pumpkin pies. I like the mouth-feel of cream in carrot soups, but I have found that too much dairy fat dulls the sweet, delicate flavors, making one regret the wasted calories and mediocre soup.

What carrot soup needs is just a hint of dairy fat, in the form of butter, to amp up the flavor of an aromatic onion saute. From there, we bring on the carrots, soup stock, and a handful of rice for luscious texture. Finish with a sprinkle of orange zest, a generous pour of fresh orange juice, and a splash of white wine, and there you have it: the perfect carrot soup and not a drop of cream in sight. But don’t skip the butter: it provides just the right amount of richness at a bargain price for your wallet and your waistline. For those of you who are math- or calorie-counting-inclined, each big bowl of soup (with my ladling, I get four servings) has just under three grams of fat from the butter. Like I said, bargain! Especially for a soup this tasty.

And so I wait, with carrot soup for company, until pumpkins make their bright debut. At least I know I’ll be well-fed. Maybe this waiting business isn’t so bad after all.

The Perfect Carrot Soup
Adapted loosely from “Carrot-Orange Soup with a Toasted Cashew Garnish” in Soup and Bread by Crescent Dragonwagon
Makes 4 large bowls of soup

Oh, how many hours have I spent with Soup and Bread, lounging on the couch reading from it or scurrying around the kitchen cooking from it! It is one of the best cooking investments I have made. Have you picked up your copy yet?

But I must confess: I never did make this soup’s predecessor as Crescent instructs. Why not? I suppose it’s because when I first found the recipe, I feared heavy cream would make me plump. Now, five years into graduate school, a little plumping might do me some good, but it’s too late: I like my version of this soup, which is similar to the original, ingredient-wise, but nonetheless has deviated quite a bit. The harmony of subtle flavors here is truly wonderful. This soup is delicious hot or cold and I think it would be a lovely picnic soup—perhaps a good choice for an Equinox evening outside?

1 tbsp. butter
1 large onion, chopped
6-7 medium to large carrots, ends chopped off, peeled, and chopped into rounds or “coins” (you’ll want about 3 cups of carrot coins)
2 tbsp. white rice (I use jasmine rice)
3-4 cups* mild, very tasty vegetable stock**
1 generous tsp. freshly grated orange zest
Juice of one orange (about 1/2 cup)
2 tbsp. dry white wine
Salt to taste

1) Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and saute for several minutes until it starts to soften and become very fragrant.
2) Transfer the buttery onions to a soup pot. Add the chopped carrots and rice. Use a ladle or two of the vegetable stock to deglaze the onion skillet, pouring the deglazing stock into the soup pot along with the remaining stock. Bring the contents of the soup pot to a boil, then turn down the heat to medium-low. Cover the pot and let everything simmer for about 30 minutes, or until the rice is very tender.
3) At this point, you can either finish the soup or allow it to cool for a while if you like. When you are ready to finish the soup, add the orange zest and orange juice. Working in batches, transfer the pot’s contents to a blender and blend to smoothness. You may need to do this in several batches; I do it in 2-3 batches.
4) Transfer the pureed soup back into the soup pot. Add the wine and taste. You may want to add salt or some water or stock if the soup is too thick, so adjust as needed.
5) Serve the soup hot or cold as desired.

*I offer a range of volumes for the stock because you can choose to make the soup thicker or thinner as you prefer.
**Note that the stock will play an important role in determining the soup’s flavor, so be sure to pick a mild but good-tasting stock. You don’t want, for example, a mushroom stock here because the flavor will overpower the rest of the soup.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Composed in the Clarity of Early Morning

August has made me deliciously happy, stuffed full of peaches and tomatoes, toasty warm from summer sun, kissed by the most delicate of breezes. Such easy joy calls for a moment or two spent in quiet reflection, during which thoughts of all that is tasty or pleasurable are savored. The writer’s privilege is a life twice lived, once in the thick of the action and again in the sweet solitude of composition.

And now, the list:

* * * Organic Valley’s Raw Sharp Cheddar Cheese. Remarkably layered in flavor, this raw-milk cheddar’s salty-clean bite recedes into creamy sweetness. This cheese is made for nibbling, with or without bread, and is well worth its twelve-dollar-a-pound price tag.

* * * Peaches, too sweet to be eaten in any form but raw, preferably moments after slicing with a sharp knife. Tragedy was narrowly avoided last weekend when I ponied up quarters taken from my laundry money in order to possess two beautiful pints of peaches from my favorite fruit stall at the farmer’s market. Dirty clothes are a small price to pay for the pleasure of peaches.

* * * My morning prep list. Certain parts of lunch, such as lettuce-tearing and bread-slicing, must be prepared as close to noon as possible. My morning prep list, written the night before as lunch is being packed, eases a sleepy mind by negating the need to actually remember all that must be prepped for lunch. I love mornings, but thoughts are fleeting and dripping with dreamy fragments. Memory is occupied with revisiting the Matt who appeared in my dreams shortly before waking…

* * * Knee-length skirts brushing against bare legs. Summer is a shameless exhibition of body and fabric, swishing as I walk, tickling my skin with floaty softness. My extensive skirt collection is one of the tell-tale signs of my secret passion for all things flirty and feminine.

* * * Yoga stretching, immediately upon waking. A few sleepy moments spent in downward-facing dog, unkinking the back, does wonders for one’s posture and mood. After the dog, transition into an easy cobra pose and breathe deeply to open the lungs. Ahhh.

* * * Cream cheese frosting, eaten late at night, straight from the bowl. It is the baker’s treat after a job well done. One must have ample reward for dutifully completing homework for cake-decorating class.

* * * Sarah McLachlan sings to me while I slice cucumbers, “Would your love in all its finery/tear at the darkness all around me/until I can breathe again/until I believe again?” In song, she has captured me, “a wild fire born of frustration…I’ve no fear at all.” Indeed.

* * * My gorgeous knife collection, a thoughtful gift from my favorite onion-eater. Nothing makes a girl feel like a real grown-up cook like owning an enormous chef’s knife, which dwells cozily in a knife block next to the coffee-maker. You may be a control freak, my onion-caramelizing, cheese-loving, wine-drinking friend, but you are my very favorite control freak. I happily put myself in your hands; all is well when you are around.

* * * A mug of unsweetened, freshly brewed black tea. It is amazing what influence lovers wield. What was once unfathomable—why buy unflavored black tea when you can have gloriously fruity flavored tea!—becomes enjoyable, even memorable. I reach for the tea box and think about how I once bought this tea just for Matt. Now I buy it for me…and for him. But no sugar in my tea please—I get all the sweetness I need from his spirit, lingering in my kitchen long after he has left.

* * * The act of writing, with nothing more than a tumble of thoughts twisting and turning around each other. The unseen act of writing is the most delicious part, the part where ideas reveal themselves, clearly and beautifully. Writing is a crystallization of thought; it is an art. And one must not be afraid to make bad art, for bad art will hold hands lovingly with good art when good art is too small and fragile to emerge on her own. One must be brave enough to write badly. She who is afraid to write badly will soon be too afraid to write at all.

Monday, August 18, 2008

On Duality and Salad Dressing

By all accounts, I seem like a perfectly normal person. I go to work every day. I sleep soundly for eight hours a night. I laugh, I cry, I stomp my feet in frustration sometimes, then I laugh at myself. I have a very healthy appetite. In fact, I strongly suspect that my advisor thinks I spend all my time at work eating. Whenever we bump into each other, I’m spooning something into my mouth. (Hey, I’m not allowed to eat in the lab! Safety regulations!) Doesn’t he realize science takes a lot of energy? Those PCR reactions aren’t going to set themselves up! At least not until we get some sort of robot to do it for us.

Yes, I do put up a good front, convincing everyone how very normal I am. But secretly, I wonder if I’m not actually two people. Inside my brain live The Rational and The Emotional. And they get in fights with each other all the time. The Rational is always arguing for what “makes sense,” while The Emotional pleads for what “feels right.” The problem is that what makes sense and what feels right are often not the same thing. It’s up to me to sort out these discrepancies.

A long-distance relationship really pushes me to the edge of confusion here. By all accounts, starting a romantic relationship with someone who lives 600 miles away is about the least rational thing ever. It does not make sense, but oh, how good it feels! Sometimes. The together-apart-together-apart rhythm of this romance is like driving through a mountain pass; it’s all ups and downs and stomach-dropping curves and relief at the end. It is nothing short of exhilaration, but it’s also exhausting and at times, heart-wrenching.

I experience bouts of insecurity during the times when Matt is so terribly busy that he can barely breathe, let alone compose a love letter or have a leisurely chat with me. Usually I know when he’s entering one of those times. Rationally, I should interpret his silence for what it is: racing against the clock, foot heavy on the gas pedal of his life. But I can’t help missing him when he disappears on me, and in missing him, sometimes I wonder if his silence isn’t deliberate, if he’ll really return to the emotional space that is us. Past experience has sensitized me to this break-up method: have two boyfriends disappear on you, only to return one final time to announce, “It’s over,” and YOU try not to freak out when he becomes unavailable!

I feel guilty for even having these feelings. Matt is not one to play games. He’s calm and reassuring, patient and wise, one of the most loving people I’ve ever met. He’s never given me a reason to doubt his feelings or his commitment, so I feel disloyal when I doubt. Call it a duality: the on-going struggle between The Rational and The Emotional.

I have a similar conflict when it comes to cake. I claim not to be much of a cake person, but then I race out to the lunchroom at work when there’s a cake alert! And don’t I love every bite of homemade cake, scraping up tender crumbs and rich frosting with my fork? I do! I LOVE IT when someone brings in a cake! Hallelujah! Last week, I was that someone. The next day, Daphna was that someone, and holy frijoles, but that girl can BAKE! What a dreamy confection she made: chocolate cake, moist and rich, with a sturdy but tender crumb, covered in just-barely-sweet vanilla frosting, made thick with meringue and plenty of butter. Daphna, demure as she is, had no idea that her cake would be demolished in a matter of minutes, leaving nothing but crumbs. Somehow she managed to save me a slice—hurray! I daresay, I have found my wedding cake. I have no groom, or really any of the other wedding day accessories, but dammit, I’ve found my cake. So D, if your offer to make my wedding cake still stands, I’d like to order one chocolate cake with that amazing vanilla frosting. Don’t worry, you’ve got plenty of time to perfect your cake-decorating skills while I go look for a groom.

Two cakes in two days, and a giant vanilla milkshake at Hamburger Mary’s on Friday night. Mmm-hmm. It was a decadent week. After all that decadence, all I really want is a salad. But here’s the kicker: I made the most delicious salad dressing ever last week. It’s downright decadent. More or less a classic Italian vinaigrette, this dressing is sharp with balsamic vinegar and Dijon mustard, laced with sweet-tangy shallots, and made creamy with a healthy pour of olive oil. It has no right being as good as it is—it’s nothing fancy, just a basic dressing—but my goodness, does it make me swoon. It turns an otherwise-ordinary salad into something worth writing to you about, dear reader. It also works really well as a condiment in sandwiches, or even just spooned onto good bread. Whatever uses you find for this dressing, I’m sure it will please your palate.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to bake another cake for this week.

Classic Italian Vinaigrette
Adapted from a dressing recipe in Food Network Kitchens Cookbook
Makes 1/2 cup

I don’t even watch the Food Network, but somehow I acquired one of their cookbooks. (Thanks, SM!) But I’m really starting to like this cookbook: I’ve got no fewer than four recipes bookmarked and I have a feeling I’ll be adding to that number. This vinaigrette is a keeper in my kitchen. Very tasty and very versatile, it’s also very, very easy, made with ingredients you probably have on hand right now. Give it a whirl and see what you think.

3 tbsp. balsamic vinegar
2 tbsp. Dijon mustard
1 tsp. salt
A couple grinds of fresh pepper
1/3 cup olive oil
1 shallot, minced

1) In a small bowl (I like to use my two-cup volume measuring cup), whisk the vinegar, mustard, salt, and pepper together. Using one hand to whisk and one hand to pour, begin pouring the olive oil into the dressing while whisking steadily. Keep pouring and whisking until you’ve added all the olive oil and the dressing has emulsified into one mixture. This dressing should be thick and voluptuous now.
2) Stir in the minced shallots. Contrary to what the book says, I’m finding that this dressing keeps very well in the fridge for more than a week. Store it in a glass container in the fridge and it should keep nicely. After refrigerating, the dressing may solidify, so let it warm up a bit on the counter before using it.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Every Last Smudge

What I’m about to say is going to be a divisive sentiment, but I can’t help it: I like cats. They are a far superior housepet to that other creature to which they are often compared. It’s not that I don’t like that other animal, the one that starts with a d. It’s just that I get cats. I understand them because we have a similar temperament, a synchronization of worldviews.

Take, for instance, the phenomenon known as napping. Cats are very serious about their napping. They don’t mess around. They can do it any time, anywhere. They take great pleasure in making the most unlikely of places—the windowsill, a porch step, the top of a refrigerator—look like the most luxurious sleeping spots. Doesn’t it make you want to climb on top of your refrigerator to try it yourself? Virtually nothing gets in the way of a cat and her sleep. If only I could say the same for myself! One has to admire an animal that has its priorities so clearly organized! I wish a kind-hearted cat would take it upon herself to teach me how to sleep so soundly and so comfortably on a moment’s notice. I’m sure it takes lots of practice, but I’m willing to do what it takes.

Another important point: cats like solitude. It probably makes for better naps, but even when other creatures are around, a cat will hang out by himself. He’ll perch on top of a couch, staring out the window into the yard, keeping watch over his territory. Or he’ll find a toy—a bit of string, a bug, maybe even a mouse if he is lucky!—and bat it around the house for hours, chasing and catching and chasing again. When he tires of his toy, he will find a soft spot on a chair or the floor, curl himself into an U, and resume napping. Cats are the ultimate hermits. If they weren’t dependent on their owners for opening those stubborn food packages that absolutely require opposable thumbs, cats could do without humans altogether. They are wonderfully self-sufficient housepets.

But cats do like humans. Sure, they are more reserved than dogs, but cats have their own special way of showing affection. For years, my family and I shared our home with a lovely cat named Dusty. Even by cat standards, she was a very reserved animal, generally more interested in napping than anything else. But she had a remarkable knack for knowing when she was needed. Almost without fail, if the day’s events had gone horribly wrong, if I was reduced to tears and incoherent sobbing, Dusty would find me and soothe me with her gentle presence. With her silent warmth and softness, she found a way of saying, “I am here, child. You are not alone. I will stay until you are well again.”

Rest in peace, Miss Dusty Babe.

Finally: grooming. Despite her name, Dusty was an impeccably groomed feline. Sporting a grey coat on her backside and a white coat over her belly, Dusty was fanatic about her baths. After every meal, before and after most naps, she would lick every nook and cranny of her furry body, keeping her whites white and her coat shining. Dusty hated having dirty paws and took great effort to avoid such discomfort.

But me? I kinda like being dirty on occasion. There’s something very relaxing and natural—in a word, freeing—about being dirty. I don’t mean the type of dirty where your co-workers wonder why the water company keeps shutting off your water. I mean the dirty that happens while running on muddy paths, or the kind that happens because you’re too busy making pancakes on Sunday morning to bother showering until 2 PM, or even the kind that happens because you’re too, um, busy in bed to think about bathing. Indeed, it’s very good to be dirty sometimes!

There are scales of dirtiness to consider as well. One need not skip a morning shower to experience the dirty pleasure of eating with one’s hands. Why is it that when we taste the food with our fingers first, it tastes infinitely better in our mouths? Aptly-named “finger foods” appear on tables around the world, from spongy injera bread pinched around vegetables in Ethiopian cuisine to Thai lettuce cups, holding all sorts of delectably savory goodies inside. Do our American ice cream cones count as finger food? I think they do, for I find them ridiculously fun to eat—the perfect way to celebrate life on a gorgeous summer evening.

There’s a reason why finger foods show up so often at parties: finger foods practically declare that A GET-TOGETHER IS A PARTY. And it turns out that at a party, guests like messy finger foods. I once fretted over a batch of unbaked peanut butter bars that I took to a party. I thought, “These treats are too messy. They’re going to start melting as soon as I pack them up, party-bound, and hop on the train. God, I wish I’d made something else!” Perhaps time was short that day, or maybe I was out of flour, but whatever the reason, I was stuck with offering delicious, messy, unsophisticated peanut butter bars. I was already pouting before the party even started.

The party guests were too busy gobbling down peanut butter bars to notice.

These peanut butter bars are shockingly popular. I hadn’t really thought of them as party food or celebratory in any way; they were just tasty and messy, a convenient treat that can be whipped up in about ten minutes without even preheating the oven. They can be a sweet, energy-dense snack or a dessert. And while I love my buttery things and my eggy things, these bars require neither, which can be a relief if you’ve been indulging a bit lately. Plus high-quality, organic dairy and eggs are expensive, so your wallet will be happier with a diverse diet, a diet that makes good use of less expensive pantry items like peanut butter and raisins.

Most importantly, though, these peanut butter bars will make your belly happy. Lick your fingers and enjoy every last smudge of chocolate and peanut butter.

Classic Hippie No-Bake Peanut Butter Bars
Adapted from “Peanut Butter Bars” in The New Laurel’s Kitchen by Laurel Robertson, Carol Flinders, and Brian Ruppenthal
Makes 8 large bars

I’ve seen variations of this type of peanut butter treat in lots of places, but my first introductions to it were recipes in Passionate Vegetarian and The New Laurel’s Kitchen. Both of these cookbooks have a strong hippie vibe to them, so I can’t help but think of these peanut butter bars as classic hippie cuisine. I speculate that these recipes used natural peanut butter back when natural peanut butter was always an oily, gunky mess that had to be stirred like crazy to get an appetizing consistency, a time when natural peanut butter was only eaten by serious health-food nuts

Lucky for us, lots of stores now carry natural peanut butters that don’t separate and are minimally processed. My current favorite is the Whole Foods store brand, 365. I almost always have a container of 365 Organic Crunchy Peanut Butter in the fridge, which contains just four ingredients: peanuts, palm oil, cane sugar, and sea salt. And THANK GOODNESS it’s trans-fat free—no hydrogenated anythings in this peanut butter—so I feel better about eating it. I’m trying to wean myself off of my usual peanut butter which is made with hydrogenated oils. I am skeptical that hydrogenated oils are actually better for us than their partially hydrogenated counterparts…

In honor of the steamy hot month of August, The Peanut Butter Boy and Foodaphilia are hosting a No-Bake Peanut Butter Exhibition. I think these raisin-studded, chocolate-topped peanut butter bars will make for a very competitive entry.

2 tbsp. oat bran
1/4 cup dry milk powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 cup raisins
3 tbsp. honey
1 cup natural peanut butter, crunchy or smooth as you like (I like crunchy here)
1/4 cup chopped bittersweet chocolate (4 squares of chocolate from Trader Joe’s Bittersweet Pound Plus bar is perfect here)

1) In a medium mixing bowl, mix together the oat bran, dry milk powder. and salt. Stir in the raisins.
2) Add the honey and peanut butter and mix vigorously to make a smooth “batter” chunked with raisins and peanuts, if you used crunchy peanut butter. The batter will be very thick and should hold its form well—more solid than liquid.
3) Spray an 8.5x4.5-inch glass pan (or a pan with similar dimensions) lightly with cooking spray. Using a mixing spoon, scrape the batter into the pan. Smooth the top so that you have an even layer. Place the chocolate in a liquid measuring cup and using the cup, pour or shake the chocolate evenly over the surface of the bars. Use your fingers to lightly push the chocolate into the batter, which will help it stay on top of the bars when they are cut.
4) Cover the pan with plastic wrap and refrigerate until you are ready to eat them. They can, of course, be eaten immediately, but I like them cold and rich, straight out of the fridge. To get 8 bars out of the pan, you’ll want to cut them into roughly 2x2-inch bars. Store the bars in the fridge.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008


Oh, dear reader, I nearly lost my mind.

After four (FOUR!) submissions and three rounds of revisions, the Journal of Neuroscience has finally agreed that my first-author paper is worthy of publication.

It’s about damn time.

And do you know what my graduate advisor wrote in response to the news? “This is a relief!!”

I couldn’t agree more.

But the thing is, I do want a little more. Perhaps a congratulations is in order here? After all, this paper acceptance practically puts a P and half an h after my name: the halfway mark on my journey to a PhD. With this paper on its way to the presses, I feel relieved, elated, buoyed, happy, refreshed. I’m ready to finish this project of mine called graduate school, ready to see the horizon beyond the finish line.

The acceptance of this paper feels like the final milestone in a long, painful journey that has occupied much of my conscious thought for the past year. It’s not just a paper, a story about fruit flies and biological clocks and enzymes. It has been one of the greatest and most humbling learning experiences I have survived. It’s right up there with life after breaking up with my first boyfriend and losing a beloved mentor and friend to cancer two years ago. Written between the lines of my manuscript is the story of my failures, one after another after another, most of them biochemical assays that simply did not work. This paper is not the story I wanted to tell but it is the story told to us by the data we had. This paper is a lesson in doing the best with what is, not what we wish we had. It’s a difficult lesson to learn, but it’s a pervasive lesson in life. How many moments are we going to spend regretting what isn’t? How much time can I waste wishing things were different—wishing that I didn’t have days during which I feel sad for no reason, that my friends would stop moving away, that the stifling humidity would cease and desist, that my apartment would clean itself when I’m away at work, that my family would come visit me?

Life is filled with disappointments: bad days, inconveniences, devastating losses, heartbreaking news. Let me take this one tiny moment of success and celebrate it for what it is. An accepted manuscript. And an acceptance of the larger experiment in which we all participate: life.

Who knew that “accepted” would only follow acceptance?

May you all find the inner strength and flexibility to accept what life has to offer you. Accept all and regret nothing.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Ginger Syrup for the Fireball

“we do not meet in broken places, but whole in our spirits ebb and flow across our consciousness as water
mingling and leaving, flowing and leaving, giving life and leaving
coming around again
and leaving
meeting only beneath the woven branches of honest trees, grown true among themselves
we cannot meet in broken places because we are whole, and do not fit”

Excerpt from “kindred,” an unpublished poem by SM

I’ve been kind of blue lately. In late June, my best friend and partner in crime, Shawn Marie, heeded the siren’s call of family need and moved back to Michigan. I, of course, didn’t want her to go, but I knew she was doing the right thing. But I’m still blue. I miss her.

We are a most unlikely pair. Shawn Marie, or SM as I often call her, and I have an entire friendship based on agreeing to disagree. She’s a fireball: fierce, opinionated, smart as hell, fearless. Our common ground is Big Stuff: we both care deeply about the earth and environmental issues, we’re both scientists, and we both like chocolate. (Yes, chocolate counts as Big Stuff.) We tend to get along well with others—perhaps her more than me—and we like to laugh. We both like Matt, but I like him more. We love food and cooking, reading and discussing, drinking and being naughty.

Upon our common ground, however, we disagree fiercely. She loves physics; I struggled through my two-unit requirement in college. There is no such thing as too much lemon juice to her; I think a little bit goes a long way. She’s very open to meeting new people; I get shy and nervous. She likes red wine; I prefer white. I love ripe bananas; she only likes ‘em green. I like coconut; she can’t stand it (something about the texture, she says). She is reserved about love; I think love is one of life’s greatest pleasures. She likes tall, skinny men; I prefer my men shorter and more muscled. In the 8+ years that we’ve been friends, I think there has been just one boy who made us both sigh with lust, one DP who we spotted in our first physics class. DP had a pleasant face and beautiful eyes. His head was kinda large, and his body average, but oh! Those eyes! Intelligent and sultry, his eyes spoke volumes without him saying a word. I could have floated away in those eyes.

No matter the extent to which SM and I disagree, we’ll always have DP.

We’ll also have ginger. SM adores ginger—the smell of a freshly broken nub, the heat and tanginess of ginger on the tongue, the way it peps everything up with its sparkling flavor. Ginger, along with cilantro, is one of the many foods to which SM introduced me. I can’t help but think of her every time I cook with ginger. And so it seems fitting that on the morning of her big move back to Michigan, she sat in my kitchen with me, eating a breakfast that included mandarin oranges doused with a healthy pour of Homemade Ginger Syrup. Our breakfast was a “make-do-with-what’s-in-the-kitchen” meal, nothing elaborate or fancy, a quick meal together before we headed out. But the specialness of those ginger-laced oranges lingered on my tongue and on my mind. It made me happy to have something so unusual and tasty that day, a sort of gustatory memory that could be conjured up later with the right ingredients.

Now SM has settled into her new home in Michigan. We don’t go to the farmer’s market on Saturdays any more, nor do we go to Trader Joe’s or out for coffee. Instead, like so many of my relationships, ours has become a phone-and-e-mail routine, a poor substitute for the pleasure of her company. But it will have to suffice. To make myself feel better, I’ve been keeping a batch of sweet, spicy Ginger Syrup on hand…and I booked myself a weeklong stay in Michigan come December, so that we’ll have plenty of time to catch up. By that time, there should be lots of new things on which we can agree to disagree.

Homemade Ginger Syrup
Adapted slightly from Real Vegetarian Thai by Nancie McDermott

This simple syrup is a lovely ingredient to have on hand. I’ve been using it in my Chai Lattes, substituting a tablespoon of syrup for the sugar I usually add. It also makes for delicious homemade ginger ale: in a tall glass, start with about a quarter cup or so of syrup, add lots of ice, and then top with sparkling water or club soda. Give it a good stir, taste, and add more ginger syrup if you’d like it to be a little sweeter. You can also turn homemade ginger ale into a ginger julep by first muddling some mint leaves into the ginger syrup, letting them steep for a few minutes, and then topping with ice and club soda. The ginger julep suggestion is an adaptation of a drink that my friend Andy made with some leftover fresh mint, and it was absolutely delicious. If you want a boozy ginger julep, feel free to add some bourbon or other hard liquor.

And of course, you can use this syrup to top fruit salads or simple cups of mandarin oranges. It’s hard to go wrong with ginger syrup—much harder to keep it on hand because it’s so tasty!

1 cup sugar (I use light brown sugar because it’s what I usually have on hand)
1 cup water
1 piece of fresh ginger, about 3 inches long, peeled and sliced crosswise into 1/4-inch-thick coins

1) In a large saucepan, combine the sugar, water, and ginger coins. Bring the mixture to a boil over high heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, to dissolve the sugar, until the mixture becomes a thin syrup, about 2-3 minutes. Remove from the heat, cover the pan, and allow it to cool completely. Pour the syrup into a container suitable for storing in the fridge, cover, and store in the fridge. Use as needed; the syrup will remain a thin, easily measured liquid in the fridge.