Monday, March 30, 2009

Sexy, Messy, Homespun Love

I feel very blessed that my favorite guy likes to cook. I’m even more blessed that he knows more about cooking than I do, so he’s got stuff to teach me. The playing field levels out ever so slightly because I’m a vegetarian cook. As such, I’m inspired to try all sorts of things that Matt might never make at home. It amazes me that we get along well in the kitchen—no food fights, just nibbles of cheese and sips of wine and taste-testing to check the progress of caramelizing onions. He is the first man with whom I have felt comfortable cooking. Matt is pretty amazing, but I wonder if the sensuality of cooking might encourage other couples to inhabit the kitchen at the same time, hands in the food, hearts wide open to romance. To my mind, there is nothing sexier than a man who can cook—nothing except a man who will cook, and who will cook with me. The snag is really that last part: how do two people form a kitchen partnership? How is one couple able to put dinner together without ever wanting to use wooden spoons to knock each other over the head, while another couple stays in separate rooms when someone is cooking? What is it about kitchen chemistry that can make cooking together foreplay or a disaster?

Despite my scientific credentials, I have only some thoughts and observations about romantic kitchen affairs. My own love affair came to life in part because of a shared love for cooking. Through a rather pleasurable process, Matt and I have learned how to cook together happily, and I’d like to think there are some nuggets of wisdom I can glean from our experience. I have also dated men who were not nearly as much fun in the kitchen, and there is definitely something to be learned from the failures. My friends, who inspired me to write this post, have offered their two cents on the topic. They also tell me fun stories of cooking with their sweeties; heaven knows I adore a love story, especially one that involves food. Today, let us explore the delicate process of making sexy, messy, homespun love in the kitchen—the very best kind of love we can make while fully clothed.

* First of all, relax. Cooking together should be fun, not stressful. So take a few deep breaths, remember why you love your special someone, and let go of any gourmet expectations here. Also, a glass of wine may help with this step.

* Embrace imperfection and set a low threshold. Mistakes will be made—try not to fret about it. I’d say that edibility is a reasonably low threshold. If the meal isn’t edible, I think you are entitled to feel disappointed. Case in point: last summer Naperville Dude and I had a picnic, and he’d brought these baked tomatoes, whole tomatoes, with melted cheese on top. They were still warm from the oven when we ate (and it was so hot that day), and I do not exaggerate when I say they were inedible. They were awful. I gagged when I tried to take a bite, and we ended up throwing all of them away. I admit that I was very diasppointed; I remember thinking to myself, Can’t this guy even bring a decent vegetable to a picnic? I had been imagining a salad, maybe a green bean one with shallots and some sort of mustardy dressing…but silly me, I had a whole food fantasy in my head, but I didn’t say a word out loud. I wanted to trust that Naperville Dude could handle a vegetable dish, but I was wrong. We broke up shortly thereafter. We didn’t break up over tomatoes, but perhaps they were a contributing factor.

I digress. My point is that cooking offers so many sensual rewards that it’s worth it to try cooking together. Take it easy on each other and have fun with it.

* Be gentle with each other. In cooking, as in life, sometimes it’s necessary to offer some correcting advice. The trick is all in the delivery. There are times when I would like Matt to do something a little differently, or vice versa—maybe the potato chunks are too large, or the chickpeas haven’t been simmered to tender perfection. In these cases, we’re both open to the other person’s opinion, but that opinion is always offered gently and lovingly. This is really important to me. I cannot tell you how many friends of mine have barked criticism at me as though I were an inept line cook who can’t chop tomatoes. Oh, alright, maybe they weren’t quite that rough with me, but I’m a sensitive creature. I like my criticism sweetened with sugar and dolloped with whipped cream. Think about this: what is more important to you, your partner’s feelings or that the pasta is cooked perfectly al dente?

Be gentle, encouraging, and kind. Use a soft tone. Ask, don’t bark. Nobody likes it when someone else makes them feel bad about their work.

* I realize that not everybody feels at home in the kitchen. If this description fits you, I have just one word: TRY. Your efforts will mean so much to your partner that they will overshadow the results. My other piece of advice would be to cook from a reputable source if you are nervous and uncertain. Try a classic cookbook before you try recipes from other print sources or the internet. A classic cookbook, especially one that’s been updated and reissued, is likely to provide good, solid instructions and good, solid recipes. The contents have been tested and re-tested by lots of cooks, so you can feel more confident about reproducibility. Reproducibility = Edibility.

* Embrace the mess. Cooking is messy—there’s just no way around this simple truth. Personally, I rather enjoy the mess—it makes me feel vibrantly alive to see a kitchen filled with people and food and the messy clutter of people working with food. When I’m cooking, I’d rather be focused on the food—the tastes, the smells, the process—than be obsessed with maintaining a spotless kitchen. I clean up as I go, but only as my cooking times allow, or when a dirty dish must be made clean for the next step in the recipe. I won’t sacrifice my cooking time on the altar of godly cleanliness.

It makes me very happy that Matt and I cook together and we clean up together. I think cleaning up together is an ideal solution to the mess. This problem is tricky, though, because couples don’t always agree on how to do the clean-up. I encourage you to talk to your partner. Try to find a compromise that gets the job done faster for everyone, which leaves you more time for dessert and cuddling on the couch. Dessert + cuddling = Happy ending.

* Simmer your affections. I confess: I have a one-track mind, and it’s often, but not always, thinking sexy thoughts. When I’m cooking, though, I’m thinking about the food. I don’t want to be distracted by other things, including a groping, horny man. Cooking with Matt is very sexy, and one of the reasons is that we tend to watch each other without touching. I get to study the way he moves, the way he handles a knife, the way he mixes with his hands and then licks his fingers. There’s a certain tension that builds when we cook together. It’s delicious. The whole thing gives me shivers of pleasure.

But I am grateful that we don’t do much touching of anything but the food. For one thing, if we’re putting a whole meal together, there might be a lot going on—multiple burners going, sharp knives in motion, food spread out. We’ve got to keep track of what we’re doing! The other thing is that I am horribly klutzy, constantly dropping things and banging into walls. I’d prefer not to cut my finger—yet again!—if Matt decides to get frisky while I’m prepping vegetables. There is plenty of time to get frisky before or after dinner. I’m okay with both.

Of course not everyone feels the same way. The important thing is to honor each person’s desires. For some people, cooking together might be the perfect excuse to get frisky, in which case, might I recommend you take care to turn off the burners before something catches on fire? Maybe frisky cooks should stick to salads?

* Measuring spoons are optional. Matt, like many of my friends, cooks a lot by feel. He’s not big on measuring things. He trusts his instincts and his palate. And I trust Matt, so even though I like measuring things, I don’t mind that he doesn’t love it as much as I do. During his last visit, we were making my much-loved Roasted Broccoli and Tofu, and I asked Matt if he’d like to prep the tofu. (That’s another thing I love about Matt: he’ll eat tofu with me. And he actually likes it!) The chopped tofu was sitting in a mixing bowl. I stood in front of Matt, a bottle of olive oil in one hand and a tablespoon in the other. “The tofu needs two tablespoons of oil,” I said. Matt reached for the olive oil, leaving my other hand dangling in the air attached to a tablespoon. He uncapped the bottle, poured a healthy splash of oil over the tofu, and, with his bare hands, mixed the tofu until it was glossy and aromatic with oil. I laughed at us—me with the tablespoon still in my hand, Matt with his hands coated in olive oil—and set the spoon on the counter. Clearly he would not be needing it.

Everybody who cooks has his own style. It’s one of the things that makes home-cooking so lovely and unique. If you are cooking as one member of a pair, I say embrace the uniqueness! Leave the measuring spoons on the counter! Let the olive oil flow! If this feels a bit devil-may-care for you, try doing what I do whenever Matt and I are on together: let yourself be on vacation, even if it’s just for an evening. Have fun, be spontaneous, and enjoy the magic.

* Delegate…as it pleases you. My friend Nicole tells me she and her husband, Andy, used to have minor disagreements about things like how carefully spices ought to be measured. Their solution? She (or he) who opens the spice jar gets to season as she sees fit. Nicole and Andy are also very gentle with each other when they offer corrections. By the way, they love to cook together.

A delegation strategy can be employed in lots of ways. Matt and I do this from time to time, especially when fresh mozzarella is involved. Matt makes an amazing caprese salad, and he likes to make it when it’s high tomato season. He’ll make his salad as an appetizer for us to nibble while I get our soup started.

As a cook who spends most of her time in the kitchen alone, I must confess that I love having a partner in crime, someone with whom to split the onion-chopping and potato-washing. Ever since we met, I knew that there was something special about Matt, but I had no idea that we would come to share so many mundane moments made magical. With Matt, everything is more fun.

* * *

I have a special treat for you today. My dear friend Ammie just published her latest cooking magazine (or “cookzine,” as she likes to call it), Clove-Minded: A Valentine Cookbook. Last weekend I got to curl up with my copy. I was utterly charmed by the illustrations, including a racy one that you’ve got to see to believe. Clove-Minded is a little piece of the cooking history that Ammie and I have shared—she’s included a few of her favorite recipes from Life, Love, and Food—but it also features lots of shiny new recipes that I can’t wait to try, including her Apple-Cheddar Cheese Pie (accompanied by a very useful Apple Chart!), Crème Andalouse, Chicago Diner Scones, and Goat Cheese-Olive Empanadas. And her Soy Chorizo-Potato Pastries are not to be missed—they are amazing. Spicy, rich, and quite impressive as they bake up into big shiny bronze pillows, I love these things.

You deserve Soy Chorizo-Potato Pastries and a chance to enjoy Ammie’s funny prose and adorable Apple Chart. For just six dollars, you can purchase your own copy here, or you can try to win a copy right now! Leave a comment about your own sexy, messy adventures in the kitchen, and one randomly chosen reader will win a copy of Clove-Minded. As an extra treat, I’ll include a special baked something, fresh from my kitchen. The deadline for the drawing is a week from today, Monday, April 6, 2009. I’ll announce the winner the next day.

Good luck, and happy cooking!

Monday, March 23, 2009

Blaze of Glory

I may have to apologize to the month of March for my remarks last week.

Was I too mean? I said I hated March. Which is true, at least part of the time. As I was editing that post, I deleted this little gem, after declaring that I hated March: “but I secretly love March.” Is that true? Do I secretly love March? Maybe. I’ve been known to savor secret loves, such as the realization one summer night, after staying up way too late talking on the phone with him, that I loved Matt. Nothing had changed between us that night, but inside me, some switch had been flipped. I walked around for the next few months in a state of dazed wonder, unable to imagine what this meant. I couldn’t say it too loudly for fear of what came next. It was my secret, and I kept it safely stowed away in the depths of my heart.

That was one delicious little secret.

March, however, is harder to love than Matt. March is the gateway to spring, but March is brutal and mean, holding spring hostage while winter runs rampant, spreading cold and misery everywhere it howls. March leaves me exhausted, lacking both energy and any decent clothes to wear. My sweaters sigh with resignation—they are ready for some time off, ready to hibernate for a few months as my fun summer clothes take center stage. I want more t-shirts and fewer turtlenecks, more breezy warmth and less goose-bumpy cold.

But oh, how beautiful March is! I have seen the most spectacular sunsets this month, the sun a blazing orange globe, sinking into the west, the skies streaked with pink and blue. The light is phenomenal. I leave work just in time each day to catch the sunset on my walk home, and it catches me by surprise every time with its shimmering, fiery beauty. I can’t hate anything in those moments, not even March.

Last week I was especially spoiled by the weather. The most glorious day of the week was Tuesday—it was downright balmy outside! I had all sorts of excuses to be outside that day. In the morning, I sauntered across campus to my therapy session, which went splendidly. (As an aside, may I add that I find it amusing that my therapist thinks I don’t cry enough during our sessions? She just doesn’t believe me that I’m practically a fountain of tears on any given day.) In the afternoon, I met my best grad school friend for tea, which we immediately agreed would be better drunk outside in the sunshine. I know I’d rather be drunk in the sunshine. Aaron just finished his PhD, and I couldn’t be happier or prouder of him. Graduations always make me feel elated, but this one is uniquely special. Aaron and I have been buddies since we started this crazy ride to PhDness, and to see someone so close to me finish what has been a hard adventure…it’s just amazing. Kudos to Aaron!

But what amazes me even more about Aaron is how many encouraging words he had for me that day. That’s the kind of person Aaron is: he cares so deeply about other people that he gives out love and affection like they’re water. Aaron’s presence is sunshine—I always feel better when he’s around. Am I gushing? I can’t help it! Aaron is one of my favorite people, and he likes turtles as much as I do. Turtles, and the frosted sugar cookies sold by Al’s Deli, the kind of cookies of which legends are made. Mmm, sugar.

That night, after another amazing sunset, I arrived home tired but happy. I was even happier knowing that I had some leftover Egg and Cheese Muffins, perfect for heating up in the oven and then squishing onto ciabatta bread, the whole thing all gooey and warm and chewy. I’ve been tinkering with my recipe for Egg and Cheese Muffins for a while, ever since I saw these Bouchons au Thon, a rich, French-style egg muffin made with tuna, crème fraiche, and lots of gruyère cheese. I immediately lusted for a vegetarian version. Though they aren’t remotely similar to tuna, my first idea was canned white beans and glory be, I was right! White beans work beautifully in place of tuna. But I didn’t stop there. No, to be honest, I never really made the original recipe; I just used it as a template for my own eggy ambitions. I did make something kinda similar, and it was fine and tasty, but I quickly realized that I was searching for something less French and more American. It was a breeze to run through lots of versions of these little “muffins” because they are so easy to make and even easier to eat.

Today I bring you my current working recipe for Egg and Cheese Muffins, a delectably fast weeknight dinner. They are rich but not heavy and rather wholesome, made almost entirely of whole foods, including a scattering of vegetables in the form of winter squash and onions. The overall flavor is Italian-American, a bit like scrambled eggs crossed with pizza. I really love these things. As they bake, they rise up, soufflé-like and beautiful, but as they cool, they deflate and a lacework of tiny craters forms along their surfaces. It’s a blaze of glory, lasting but a few minutes. The flavor, however, will last until there are no leftovers—that is, assuming you are lucky enough to have any leftovers in the first place!

Happy spring, dear reader.

Egg and Cheese Muffins
Adapted from this recipe for Bouchons au Thon
Makes 7 muffins, enough for 2-3 people as part of a component meal

I invite you to tinker with this recipe, as it is very amenable to new flavors and variations. When I have fresh sage in the fridge, I like to snip up a few leaves and throw them in the batter. Here I use a bit of dried oregano and basil for some herbal flavor. Other savory Mediterranean herbs (thyme, tarragon, rosemary, parsley) could probably be used with good effect. I’d start with just a pinch to see if you like it before scaling up.

I eat these muffins mostly for dinner, but they’re great for any meal. If you have leftovers, I do recommend that you warm them up, either in the microwave or the oven because they aren’t very good cold—you lose that nice melted cheese texture and the soft bounce of warm eggs. I feel deprived when I’m forced to eat them cold.

Cooking spray
1 cup of cooked white beans (I use canned beans; just drain, rinse, and measure.)
3 large eggs
1/4 cup winter squash purée, such as pumpkin or butternut
2 tbsp. tasty marinara sauce (Use a commercial one you like if you’re lazy like me.)
1/4 tsp. dried basil
1/4 tsp. dried oregano
1/2 cup cubed cheese, such as a sharp cheddar or monterey jack
1/4 cup finely chopped onion
Plenty of salt (to taste)
A few good grinds of black pepper (to taste)

1) Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Spray seven wells of a regular muffin tin with cooking spray. Set aside.
2) Place the white beans in a large mixing bowl. Using a potato masher, mash the beans into a chunky paste.
3) Whisk the eggs into the beans. Add the remaining ingredients, stirring to mix everything thoroughly. If you aren’t terrified of salmonella, taste the batter and if it tastes bland, add a little more salt until it tastes good. Feel free to adjust the other seasonings if you think it’s too bland, but be aware that the cheese will add a lot of flavor once these muffins are baked. My goal with these seasonings is balance so that all the flavors shine through and nothing gets lost in the shuffle.
4) Spoon the batter into the greased muffin wells, filling them almost, but not quite, to the top. Tuck them in the oven and bake for 20-25 minutes or until the muffins are set and don’t wiggle wildly when you shake the muffin tin. Remove from the oven and allow them to cool for 5-10 minutes. The muffins are fairly molten when they first come out of the oven, but they become more solid and much easier to handle after they’ve cooled for a bit. After 5-10 minutes, you can remove them from the tin and eat them, or if you want, you can let them cool completely in the tin and then remove them. To get them out of the pan, I run a knife around the edges to loosen them, and then I use the knife to gently lift the muffins out of the pan. These muffins are more delicate than flour-based muffins, so take care and be patient when it comes time to handle them post-baking.

* * *

It seems I receive statements about my stock investments every day, and I just want to scream or cry at the sheer volume of crap that arrives in my mailbox. It’s such a waste of paper, as it goes almost straight from my mailbox to the recycling bag. It would be a part-time job just to keep up with the mailed literature. What I really need is a basic primer in finance: what are the terms? How do these financial systems work? Is my money being properly guarded by goblins in Gringotts Wizarding Bank?

To answer these burning questions and much more, my friend Andy has started a new blog, Grokking Finance. Andy has a knack for taking complicated financial stuff and simplifying it down to its bare bones. He’s a great story-teller, too; his examples feel less like men in suits and more like friends gathered for happy hour. I like that. I’ll be checking in with Andy regularly so that I’ll feel like less of a nincompoop about money. (As an aside, did you know that nincompoopery is a word, according to Fascinating!)

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Somewhere in Between

“Graduate school!” the stranger exclaimed, his voice coated with amusement and disbelief. “When are you going to join us in the real world?”

“Well, I’ll be unemployed in September. That seems like the real world to me,” I replied.

“Wait, how old are you? You look like a kid.” His stream of questions was endless. I couldn’t decide if I should be creeped out by this man who I’d met about five minutes earlier when we both sat down on the train, the cheerfully named Skokie Swift that runs along the Yellow Line between Skokie and Chicago.

“I’m twenty-seven,” I said. I started to think this man was equal parts friendly and nosy.

“You married?”

I laughed. “No.”

“What, you have trouble meeting men?”

“No, I’m in a serious relationship.” I immediately resented that I felt compelled to defend my not-married status, as though being single and unattached were a very bad thing, a label to be avoided at all costs.

“You think he’ll propose?”

Okay, I thought to myself. This is just getting ridiculous. “No, I don’t think he’ll propose.”

“Why not?”

“Because we’re happy the way things are now.”

The stranger, this friendly, nosy, 48-year-old man stopped for a moment, perhaps stumped by my answer. I’m glad the “we’re happy” argument works like a charm—it’s hard to push someone about her relationship when she says calmly, with an even voice and unruffled feathers, “Because we’re happy.”

I really love Chicago, even these bizarre conversations that occur because one person’s path crosses another’s for a brief moment in time. I am, in all honesty, deeply ambivalent about leaving this city that has become home to me. This city of skyscrapers and fancy hotels; of lakeside sunrises and food from every corner of the globe; of three kinds of trains; of busses that crisscross the streets in a checkerboard pattern; of the Orange Line that zips me out to Midway airport en route to places like Michigan and Arizona—the very same Orange Line that rushes Matt into Chicago and into my arms…I am deeply attached to this city, the first place where I had to spend my hard-earned money on things like toilet paper and electric bills. I feel like I grew up here, in the sense that I came to Chicago young and fresh-faced and childlike in my 21-year-old innocence, and here I am now, old and wizened, one foot out the door on my way to the real world.

“When are you going to join us in the real world?” I have always wondered about this idea that graduate school is not the real world. Who started this rumor? It sure as hell feels real to me, what with the deadlines and pressures to produce, perform, succeed. My advisor sure acts like a boss, telling me what to do and expressing displeasure when it isn’t done on time. My paycheck is real, and I spend it at a real grocery store, buying real food. Does graduate school seem less real because everyone knows I won’t be a graduate student forever? To that, I say, “Thank goodness!” Who wants to be a grad student forever? The idea that in five and a half months—169 days, assuming I graduate by the end of August—I will be starting a new phase in my career, with the pressure and pain of graduate school fading into the distance…well, I can hardly wait. Even with my uncertain job prospects, I’m still thrilled to pieces about finishing what I started six years ago. Once those three little letters are behind my name, nobody can take my degree away from me. That’s a very sweet finish indeed.

But for now, I remain somewhere in between the beginning and the end. I feel like the month of March, dismal and grey, with the occasional ray of sunshine that peaks out from behind my cynical exterior. I hate March. March is somewhere in between winter and spring, a month that lasts far too long, and yet, when the green lushness of warm spring days finally settles into regular rotation, I realize that the earth needs March in order to wake up. Likewise, I need this time during which I’m still in school, working, earning a paycheck, and preparing for my springtime. I am waking up, opening my eyes, and getting ready for what’s next. All of a sudden, I have newfound respect for March.

These almost-spring days can be rather confusing in the kitchen. The sunlight lingers into the evening hours, but the wind is fierce and the nights are cold. We need good, sturdy food in our bellies, the kind that can sustain us until the farmer’s market returns and we trade our sweaters for short sleeves. But we also need food that whispers sweet nothings about picnics and sunshine, bare skin and iced tea. We need strawberries, paradoxically tart and sweet, their perfume the very essence of spring. We need asparagus, blitzed in the oven and eaten straightaway, its flavor the taste of new green life. We need maple syrup to remind us that spring will give to us a sweetness that lasts all year long.

I like to have a few recipes on hand to bridge the gap between winter and spring. Today’s recipe is one such example. It is, admittedly, inspired by at least four different sources: Nicole’s pumpkin pancake topping which I adapted to make this French toast topping, my (lame) attempt to make a healthy Nutty Buddy bar, Kath’s oatmeal made with pumpkin and eaten with spoonfuls of peanut butter, and The Peanut Butter Boy himself. That’s as many sources as ingredients in the recipe! I didn’t really set out to find this recipe; the recipe found me. That is, I made it on a whim and decided that it ought to be added to my permanent rotation. I had some leftover pumpkin-maple topping, and to make it a more substantial item in my lunch, I added a few spoonfuls of peanut butter. I’m rather pleased with my thriftiness, and I think you’ll be pleased with this sweet, creamy, unusual treat. Between the wintry pumpkin and early-spring maple syrup, it seems just right for these long, cool March days, a tasty reminder that warmer weather is on the way.

Crispy Crackers with Pumpkin-Maple-Peanut Butter Topping
Serve 2 as a snack; the topping makes ~1/3 cup.

I might be stretching the definition of “sandwich,” but this recipe is my contribution to The Great Peanut Butter Exhibition featuring all manner of sandwiches and sandwich-like things. To me, sandwich says two things: bread and lunch. Crackers are bread’s crispiest relative, and a cracker topped with jazzed-up peanut butter is a sweet ending to lunch. I think they taste best after a light main course, such as a bowl of soup or a salad. I had carbohydrate overload when I ate them after pasta. So plan your lunch accordingly!

You can pack the topping in one of those little Glad containers and it should be fine left out at room temperature for a few hours until lunch. Pack the crackers separately, and when you are ready to eat, assemble and devour.

1/4 cup pumpkin
1-2 tbsp. maple syrup
2 tbsp. peanut butter
4-6 Wasa brand crispbreads, such as sourdough flavor

1) Mix together the pumpkin, maple syrup, and peanut butter in a small bowl. Taste and adjust the topping as you like (i.e., add more of any ingredient).
2) When you are ready to eat, top the crispbreads with as much topping as you like and eat.

Monday, March 9, 2009

On Brains, Good Behavior, and the Need for Treats

Never in a million years would I have predicted this but it’s true: I get along really well with two-year-olds. I think it’s because deep down inside, my brain is like a two-year-old, so I understand people who really are two years old. I have a soft spot for them these days because my niece Lydia is about two and half now, and my goodness, she just keeps getting cuter and cuter. Anyone who reminds me of Lydia grabs my heartstrings. I can’t resist them!

There were a few two-year-old sightings this weekend. I had such a great weekend, which I would not have expected to say, since I spent great swaths of it in front of Excel spreadsheets and yards of data. But in between my fancy intellectual pursuits, I let my two-year-old brain decide what it wanted to do. You can see that I’m not above bribery, even if the person I’m bribing is me. I’d work for an hour or two, then take a shower. I’d work for another hour, then eat lunch. I’d work for an hour, then bake granola. It’s not a bad way to climb a mountain of data, especially one that had been threatening to crush me for months. When you work in a research lab, sometimes it’s easier to generate data than it is to analyze it and make sense of it. It’s not unlike a big rock sitting on top of a hill: it’s hard to get the rock moving, but once it’s going, you’d better stand clear because otherwise it will flatten you. My work life is like a series of this big rocks: once they are in motion, I just want to let them roll until they come to a stop and then I can assess the damage—er, data. My advisor is not a fan of this tendency of mine to let data pile up. He turned up the heat under my behind to get me moving and voila! A mountain of data has been reduced to a handful of powerpoint slides. Amazing.

The bribing of my brain began on Friday evening when my lab-mate Laurie and I snuck out for some gelato at the shop down the street. That morning, the weather had been heartstoppingly beautiful: warm, sunny, a little breezy. I was buzzing with happiness, so euphoric that I didn’t even mind that I had to go to work that day. The warmth faded as the day grew older, but by that time I was convinced that I absolutely must have gelato today. Laurie, never one to say no to gelato, strolled down the street with me and we got double-scoop cones at Linz and Vail, just west of the train stop on Noyes Street. We licked our gelato happily, and Laurie made a mess as it dripped on her jeans, but I thought it was a good look for her. As we ate, a distraught two-year-old fussed in her mom’s arms outside the shop, so I made funny faces at her through the window until she smiled. Then we played peek-a-boo and her face glowed with delight. Her mother escorted her into the shop so we could have proper introduction, where the two-year-old waved at me shyly and I smiled and said hello. After introductions, my new friend and her mom left, and Laurie and I finished our cones. I don’t know what was more fun that evening: sneaking out for gelato or impromptu games with a toddler. Maybe we’ll just call it a tie.

On Saturday, Ammie gave me an excuse to ignore my work for a few hours when she came over for tea and gossip. I made us a batch of baked oatmeal and she showed me the manuscript for her new cookbook. It was all I could do not to run off with her book so I could devour it in one sitting. Ammie’s a self-publishing writer—she’s even got a giant stapler ready and waiting for fresh copies of the book—and I’m so excited to read it and cook out of it I can barely keep my wooden spoons in their drawer. Then, as though the manuscript wasn’t enough, she played a song for me on her viola, an Irish folksong number that she was rehearsing for a fundraiser event later that evening. It was beautiful, haunting and evocative of lost love.

On Sunday, I worked diligently, copying and pasting and calculating and thinking thinking thinking. My brain was very well-behaved. It rained all morning, thick sheets of raindrops. I clicked away on my computer; the rain clicked away on my windowpanes. In the late afternoon, I decided to take a short rain-walk, which turned into a long walk, and it was just perfect. I adore rain-walks, those slow strolls through the downpour, with an umbrella held overhead to deflect the worst of the showers. The rain was sputtering, apparently down to its last drops, and the temperature was mild—cool but not cold. Clouds floated along, and the sun even came out to say hello. I sauntered along, slow as molasses, taking deep breaths and enjoying the fresh air in my lungs. I felt peaceful and happy, almost surprisingly relaxed given the amount of work that was still waiting for me at home. I wonder if I might be turning over a new leaf, learning to accept my work habits as my habits. Good or bad, they’ve gotten me all the way to the brink of PhD-ness, which is not too shabby, really. Maybe it’s okay that I need to bribe myself and that I take frequent breaks. Maybe it’s okay that my best thinking tends to happen while I’m chopping onions or brushing my teeth. Maybe it’s okay that I’m really rather ordinary among scientists, that I don’t live for science. My brain thrives on pleasure, and for me, science is ~95% work, 5% pleasure. So to make up for all that work, I’ve got to find other pleasures, which is really easy, because I find pleasure and beauty all around me.

Maybe I’m finally learning the art of productivity. It’s ironic: as long as I have plenty of fun, I have no problems being productive. I think two-year-olds work the same way: make it fun and they’ll love it. It’s time for me to embrace my inner two-year-old. Today’s recipe ought to be a good starting place.

Yogurt with Sautéed Apples, Maple Syrup, and Brown Sugar
Serves 1 generously

This treat is deceptively delicious. Take a look at the ingredients and you might think, Well, that looks good but rather ordinary, right? And to that I say it’s very good, especially when eaten out of a big shallow mug while snuggled under your favorite blanket. The apple melts into soft, fragrant slices as it cooks in a mixture of butter and walnut oil, and then it is sweetened with maple syrup and brown sugar before being stirred into a cup of yogurt. The combination is rich and creamy with just a tiny bit of chew. Longtime readers of this site might remember the apple from this recipe. Sautéed apples are one of my favorite discoveries of recent years, and now I crave them regularly. This dessert is virtually instant, and its pudding-like quality makes me feel like a kid again. Yet somehow it seems a little sophisticated, perhaps because you do need to get out a skillet, something that two-year-olds ought to do only on their pretend stoves. You, however, should make this on your real stove.

Note that the brown sugar is optional. I prefer this treat with the extra sugar—it feels more treaty to me that way—but it’s pretty good with maple syrup as the only added sweetener.

1 large apple, such as a Golden Delicious, cored, peeled, and sliced into thin slices
1 tsp. butter
1 tsp. walnut oil
1 tbsp. maple syrup
1 tbsp. brown sugar (optional if you prefer the tartness of plain yogurt)
1 cup plain organic yogurt (whole milk or low-fat, your choice), such as Brown Cow

1) Melt the butter into the walnut oil in a skillet over medium-low heat. Add the apple slices, toss them with the hot fat, and cook for several minutes until the apples are soft and perhaps a little browned.
2) Spoon the apples into a small dish. Stir the maple syrup and brown sugar into the apples.
3) Place the yogurt in a bowl or large cup, such as one of those oversized coffee mugs. Top with the apple mixture, curl up under a blanket, eat with a soup spoon. Enjoy treating yourself to something homemade and indulgent.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

From Inside a Bowl-Shaped Rut

I’ve been simmering, stirring, and baking myself into a rut. Depending on the time of day, that rut is filled with either granola or soup, and it’s always bowl-shaped. Literally, my day looks like this: granola, soup, granola, soup. Breakfast, lunch, snack, dinner. Bowls alternating oatmeal or vegetables. It’s not too shabby as far as health goes, and I’m certainly getting my fiber. But I’m getting lonely inside my bowl-shaped rut. I long for meals that can be eaten on plates. I made Roasted Broccoli and Tofu four times last month because it’s delicious and because I couldn’t think of what else to make that wasn’t granola or soup. I think I need help.

To be fair, I do eat other things. They just don’t require much in the way of cooking. I love fruit, and I’ll often have raw carrots sticks with dinner (I like their snappy crunch). I drink plenty of coffee and tea brewed in my own kitchen, and I even made a batch of these cookies on Friday night. I’ve been playing around with flavors, and I came up with a new appetizer, Toasted Walnuts with Raw Milk Jack Cheese, which I plan to use today to enlist your help.

Dear readers, I’m calling on you and your bellies to help me climb out of this rut. I want to know what you’ve been eating lately that’s worthy of a gold star. I’m desperately in need of some new vegetarian entreés. It would be nice if the ingredients didn’t cost too much. It would also be nice if the cooking time didn’t run past my bedtime. I’ll give bonus points for recipes that include green vegetables, especially the powerhouse dark leafy greens like kale and spinach. If you’ve got a great dish that you gobbled up because it was so good, tell me about it. You can leave me a comment here, or you can e-mail me at lifeloveandfood [at] gmail [dot] com. If there is an exuberant flurry of recipe gossip, I’ll post a round-up next week for all to see.

While you are thinking about what you’ve eaten recently, let me offer you a recipe for something I’ve been savoring. “Recipe” is perhaps a strong word here; it’s more of an eating suggestion and it involves little more than toasting some walnuts and slicing some cheese. It’s a sophisticated combination that revealed itself to me when I was making this salad using a different cheese, Organic Valley’s Organic Wisconsin Raw Milk Cheese Jack Style. As I ate my salad, I thought to myself, This salad seems to get better every time I make it! Every bite of cheese and walnut was blissful: the cheese was smooth and rich, with just a hint of tanginess; the nuts were crunchy and still warm from the oven. The nuts made the cheese taste even richer and creamier, while the cheese made the nuts taste even toastier. Even chewing the cheese and nuts together was nice because the contrasting textures made each one lovelier: the gentle, chewy softness of the cheese would give way to the bold, confident crunch of warm nuts. I loved the combination so much that I started making it for myself as a pre-dinner appetizer, just a little something to nibble while I decompressed and got dinner started. It’s a little indulgent—that cheese!—but it’s made entirely of whole foods, which makes me feel pretty good about it. So good, in fact, that I’m passing the baton to you because you really need to try this for yourself. Then send me a new recipe and we’ll call it even.

Toasted Walnuts with Raw Milk Jack Cheese
Serves 1 (multiply to serve as many as you like)

Don’t mind my eyeball measurements here. As I said above, this is more of an eating suggestion than a recipe, but it’s definitely worth making. I like this little treat as a late-afternoon snack or an appetizer before dinner. In both cases, it takes the edge off my hunger in a most satisfying way.

A small handful of chopped walnuts (2 tbsp. perhaps?)
2-3 slices of Organic Valley’s Organic Wisconsin Raw Milk Cheese Jack Style, as thin or thick as you like

1) Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Place the walnuts on a small baking sheet and toast them for 3-5 minutes until hot and fragrant and a little toasty.
2) Place the toasted nuts and the cheese slices on a small plate and eat together. You can either smoosh the nuts into the cheese and use your fingers to place a few nuts on each bite of cheese. Or you can use a fork—whatever gives you the most pleasure!

Monday, March 2, 2009

Pantry Blessings

Today I return to form, complete with a recipe! Even more exciting, I’m happy to report that my official medical status has been upgraded from worrisome to doctor-declared good. My mental health is also on the upswing. After years of contemplating it, I finally started short-term counseling through Northwestern University’s Counseling and Psychological Services and I must say, I love it. My therapist has been great and I already feel like we are making progress. I feel healthy again. “Healthy” is my favorite word. Dear reader, I hope you’ll accept my vague but happy update. I’m going to reserve some privacy because these issues are too personal to discuss in detail here. I’m also a little shy with acquaintances. But now that I’m glowing with health again, I’m ready to turn my attention back to the food. Are you ready? Let’s go!

Now is quite the moment in time to be entering the job market. The Current Economic Climate (or CEC, as Matt likes to call it) makes me want to hide in my pantry until this whole recession business gets tidied up. I’m not on the market yet; my graduation date is very tentatively scheduled for August 2009. I should be excited about graduating, and deep down inside maybe I am, but right around the corner from graduation is a much bigger rock to climb: unemployment. My (current and tentative) long-term plan is to complete a 3-4 year postdoctoral research fellowship and then hit the job market to find a teaching position at a school like Albion College, the place that nurtured me for four years. But I have yet to find a lab in which doing a postdoc sounds appealing; right now it sounds like prison, or maybe purgatory at best. Why is my postdoc job search coming up empty? Is it because I’m burned out on graduate school? Is it because I don’t really want to do a postdoc? I can’t tell the difference between those two possibilities. All I know is that deep winter is a bad time to make life decisions if you live in Chicago. So for now, I’ve decided to put the postdoc job search on hold for a little while and instead, I’m working on Plan B: work outside of academia for a while, maybe earn some cash, and spend some time staring at Lake Michigan while I figure out what’s really in my heart.

I’m not certain how that second part, the part about earning cash, is going to pan out. After all, the CEC is not favorable for cash-earning. The CEC is rather favorable for staying inside my kitchen and hiding in the pantry. I think I’m in good company here: if you weren’t poor before the stock market crashed, I bet you feel poor now! I know I do, and I wasn’t rich before the market crashed. So while cash-earning is still a priority (hello, exam-grading for $20 an hour!), I’m also attempting to trim my budget just a smidge. This is hard: my food indulgences are tied to my values, and I hardly see the worth in buying lower-quality food in which the true cost can’t be scanned by the price checker in Jewel. I believe in organic dairy and produce. I believe in fresh fruits and vegetables. I just can’t compromise when it comes to my groceries. How can I sell my future health for a few extra dollars in my pocket now? I just can’t do it, CEC be damned.

Are you also hiding from the CEC in your pantry? Yes? Wonderful! While you’re in there, can you pull out the ingredients for today’s recipe? You should be able to find most of them tucked inside, waiting patiently to be sautéed and stirred into the tastiest chili north of the Texas border. It takes a certain amount of cowgirl swagger to utter those words, but I stand by what I say. Remember what George Strait says about cowgirls?

How ‘bout them cowgirls?
Boys, ain’t they somethin’?
Sure are some proud girls
And you can’t tell them nothin’

I love George Strait. But he ain’t kiddin’ about his cowgirls, and shouldn’t every cowgirl have a kick-ass chili recipe up her sleeve? Even if her sleeve is neither flannel nor flecked with bits of hay?

Today’s recipe is a variation of Moosewood’s Red, Gold, Black, and Green Chili. I love this particular chili because it just gets everything right: the textures, the flavors, the spices, the heat. It also comes together quickly, so quick, in fact, that I can make it on a weeknight after work, which always feels like a small miracle to me. It also has a little twist to it: bulgur, cooked in the juices from a can of tomatoes. The bulgur adds a nice chewy texture, and it builds a whole grain right into the pot of chili. This recipe is also very flexible and therefore amenable to pantry-based substitutions. For example, I find it mind-boggling that chili, a quintessentially cold-weather dish, often calls for fresh bell peppers, an August vegetable if there ever was one. The fresh bell peppers I find now in the market have been grown in places like Mexico. Those peppers have traveled a long, long way from Mexico to Chicago to my chili pot, and after a summer of eating locally grown peppers, I feel kinda funny buying them now. I’m certainly not boycotting them, but I do wonder what I might do differently. The pantry offers us the perfect solution: jarred roasted red peppers. Isn’t the pantry awesome? Or you might even be able to pull your own roasted red peppers out of the freezer if you put some up before the bell peppers disappeared from the farmer’s market. (In which case, you get a gold star for kitchen achievement. Good job!)

So let us creep out of the pantry, canned goods and some onions in hand, ready to fire up the stove. Let us forget about the CEC for half an hour while we sauté, simmer, and breathe deep, spicy breaths filled with onion and garlic. Let us eat dinner on the cheap while we put a nice down payment on our happiness, counting our blessings alongside our pennies. If you are healthy and your life is interwoven with that of people you love and who love you, then you are one of the wealthiest people I know. There is room for you at my table. I’ll save you a seat and a bowl of chili.

Moosewood Chili
Adapted from Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home
Serves 4-6 as an entrée

My belly gets excited just thinking about this chili! I make many different chilis, and I find each one endearing, but this one is my current favorite. It’s fairly representative of vegetarian chilis in general, but I think it’s the most delicious chili I’ve ever made at home. In fact, I think this chili might be the one I use in a black bean chili cook-off that my friend Josh wants to organize as a friendly challenge. Let the trash-talking begin! I see the cook-off as an excuse to eat slices of cornbread and big steaming bowls of chili. Josh also has a granola recipe that is, I’m told, top-notch, and to that all I can say is this: BRING IT.

Feel free to use your favorite chili beans in this recipe. I’ve used any combination of black beans, small red beans, red kidney beans, or pinto beans with great success. For the black bean chili cook-off, I’ll probably use all black beans, and I might go so far as to use dried beans if time permits. But on weeknights, when I’m making this chili just for me, I use all canned beans and I have no qualms about doing so. Neither should you.

Finally, this chili is mildly spicy—perfect for a mellow Northerner like me. If you want to turn up the heat, you can add more chili powder, red crushed chile peppers, or your favorite hot sauce.

1/2 cup bulgur
1/2 cup hot water
1 28-oz. can whole peeled tomatoes
3 tbsp. olive oil
3 onions, chopped (about 3 cups of chopped onions)
3 cloves of garlic, minced or pressed
1 heaping tsp. ground cumin
1 heaping tsp. chili powder
1/4 tsp. red crushed chile peppers
2 fresh green bell peppers, chopped, or 2 jarred roasted red peppers, chopped
2 cups vegetable stock
2 cups frozen cut corn
1 14-oz. can black beans, rinsed and drained (1 1/2 cups beans)
1 14-oz. can small red beans, rinsed and drained (1 1/2 cups beans)
Salt and pepper to taste

1) In a small saucepan, mix together the bulgur, hot water, and 1 cup of the juice from the canned tomatoes. Bring to a boil and then cover and simmer gently on low heat.
2) In a large soup pot or a Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Sauté the onions for several minutes until soft and then stir in the garlic, cumin, chili powder, and chile pepper flakes. Sauté for another minute to make the spices fragrant and toasty. Add the bell peppers and cook for another 2-3 minutes.
3) Add the vegetable stock. Use a pair of kitchen scissors to cut the canned tomatoes into bite-sized pieces and add them to the chili pot. Bring the whole thing to a boil and then turn the heat down to a simmer. Add the corn and beans.
4) Taste the bulgur for chewiness. If the bulgur is chewy without being hard or tough, then it’s ready to be added to the chili. At that time, add the bulgur to the chili pot and let the chili simmer for a few mintes to let all the flavors blend together.
5) Taste the chili and adjust the seasonings with salt and pepper or anything else that sounds good (hot sauce, perhaps?). Serve the chili in deep bowls accompanied by your favorite chili toppings.

* * *

I have a few tiny announcements today. The first is that today is Daphna’s birthday! Or at least I think it is, and I have a long and colorful history of misremembering birthday dates. Either way, I know it’s this month, so happy birthday, D! Your present is waiting ever so patiently for you to open it.

The second announcement is that I found a mistake in my recipe for Crunchy Breakfast Granola! Ah, I’m so embarrassed! The salt amount was listed as 1/2 tsp., but it should be 1/4 tsp. If you saved the recipe, please make sure you add this correction to your copy. I’m so sorry about this. I really hope I didn’t ruin anybody’s morning with salty granola.