Monday, April 27, 2009

I Heart Science

On Thursday afternoon, I sent a pair of haiku to Matt. I love haiku.

Thesis committee
Liked my stuff and they want to

Let me write thesis

But still! So many
Flies to push and text to write
I am exhausted

And that pretty much sums up the results of my thesis committee meeting. Mission accomplished.

My committee is wonderful. Each time we’ve met, they have given me their full attention and treated our meeting as an opportunity to teach me new things. I love to learn. It is a little overwhelming to have four professors focused with laser-like precision on you—I was nervous before and during the meeting—but they have been generous and supportive of me, and that has made my journey through graduate school that much sweeter.

I am very happy to see the finish line for my degree. It’s been a long road, full of twists and turns, dotted with some success and much failure. The journey has made me laugh and it’s made me cry. It’s also made me very, very crazy. Sometimes I can’t believe I get paid to do this work—I get paid to stumble my way through experiments and to write manuscripts. I get paid to think really, really hard. And even though science is my day job, it’s changed the way I think about everything. It’s no longer possible for me to accept anything as truth—as one blogger puts it, “Nothing is sacred.” The first of two very important things that science has taught me is this: prepare to fail. What the hell does that mean? “Prepare to fail?” It means that we should expect things to go wrong. Because they do, all the time. In fact, the morning of my committee meeting, my hair dryer caught on fire. Swear to God! I was blow-drying my hair, and the dryer sputtered. I pulled it back from my hair to look, and smoke and sparks starting shooting out the bottom. Ahhhh! I frantically clicked it off, yanked the plug out of the wall, and threw it away. Then I thought, Great. Now I’m going to have bad hair on this very important day. Then I fluffed my still-damp hair, thought, oh well, and finished getting ready. I just hoped it wasn’t an inauspicious sign of bad things to come.

The second thing that science has taught me is this: have a back-up plan. My back-up plan after my hair-dryer caught fire was to let my wild hair do its own thing. I got a haircut recently, and I told Matt I look like I have a permanent case of bedhead. I thought that description might appeal to him more than my first description, which was that I look like a shaggy dog right now. Too bad Matt’s a cat person!

From a more worldly perspective, this back-up plan idea is great because it keeps your mind open to other possibilities that you aren’t pursuing right now. I still dream of being a professional writer, but for now, it’s my backup plan. I’m going to take this science thing as far as I can, and I’ll see where I end up. Maybe some day I’ll be teaching your children that they, too, should prepare to fail. I’m sure that lesson will make me a very popular professor.

Many of you, dear readers, sent me good-luck wishes and other kind thoughts last week. For that, I cannot thank you enough. Some of you have known me for a long, long time. I can still remember having college breakfasts with JD, and during breakfast, he’d poke fun at my nerdy science schedule. After breakfast, I’d head off to Intro to Neuroscience as he’d mosey on over to his political science class. But here’s the truth: JD is just as big a nerd as I am. He’s always reading something interesting, adding new pieces to his mental jigsaw puzzle, making sense out of a nonsensical world. Because JD’s nerdiness differs from my nerdiness, our friendship has a certain color and richness that makes it very special to me. I’m so glad he’s NOT a scientist!

Others I’ve known for…uh, a week? Does it count as meeting if this person exists in your life as words on a computer screen? But oh my, what powerful words! I am so excited to have discovered Gena and her beautiful blog, Choosing Raw. I happened upon Gena through her poignant essay on her quitiversary, one year after she quit smoking. Reading her words, I thought to myself, This is a woman who gets it. This is someone who understands that we battle our demons in a series of tiny moments, a sequence of seemingly minor decisions that add up to something so much bigger than us. Gena fought her battle with cigarettes; I fight my battle with a wandering mind and a fidgety body. It seems so strange to say it this way, but the key to success may be letting yourself be uncomfortable for a while. Let yourself be cranky because it’s nighttime, and you used to smoke a cigarette after the dinner dishes were washed. Let yourself be grumpy because you’ve got data to analyze, and moving numbers around Excel spreadsheets is mind numbing. But do what you have to do to get the job done: for Gena, push-ups and reminding herself that she wants to be healthy; for me, an hour break for every hour of work. Repeat as needed.

As much as I try to focus on the process, in cooking and in the rest of my life, it occurs to me that some things are easier to accomplish if we set the process aside for a minute and focus on the goal. Nobody enjoys quitting the smokes. Likewise, it’s fair to say I have not enjoyed graduate school. But I think both are worthy endeavors, and for the latter, I can say that 90% of the time, I am glad I decided to pursue a PhD. At the end of the day, when all the experiments are done, the data crunched, the figures made, the manuscript written, the thesis submitted, the PhD earned, there’s one thing that will always be true: science starts and ends with ideas. We’ll never know “the truth.” All we ever get to see is a kaleidoscope of evidence in which the picture flows endlessly. Certainty slips through our fingers like grains of sand. But never you mind: there is always another experiment to be done.

Monday, April 20, 2009

From Here On Out

On Thursday afternoon, I will stand up in front of my thesis committee and try to convince them that in August, they should give me a PhD.

This meeting is a Big Deal. It’s a game-changer. If the committee agrees with my timeline, then I’ll be sitting pretty: do experiments until June, write thesis in July, graduate and party in August. Done. If the committee does not agree, things could get ugly.

One of the things that is so scary about being a science PhD candidate is that there is no standard formula that tells you when you are finished. It is wholly unlike any other educational experience I’ve ever had. The uncertainty about finishing is fine if you are happy and like what you are doing, but I’m not always happy. There have been days, weeks, months when all I wanted was to GET OUT. I have gone through phases during which I wasn’t even sure I wanted to be a scientist. I have come up with alternative career plans in case this whole PhD thing didn’t work out. I have cried many, many times about graduate school. I even started this blog as a way of reclaiming my voice after feeling trampled by science. To say that I am relieved about the prospect of graduating is an understatement. I am relieved, elated, OVERJOYED by this prospect. Between that and spring, creeping up so slowly here in the Midwest, I am happier than I have been in months—maybe even years.

Yes, this meeting with my thesis committee is a Big Deal, but I’m not worried about it. I believe I have accomplished enough to warrant graduation. I’ve earned a grant, published papers, and most importantly, I’ve learned how to think like a scientist. I AM a scientist, inside and outside the lab. Whether or not they put three little letters after my name will not change way I think about the world. It will change the way the world thinks about me.

I have long thought of myself as a resilient person. I am also, however, a bit of a Chicken Little, always worried about what bad thing might happen next. Being a Chicken Little is exhausting. But as a scientist, I am a professional Chicken Little. It’s my job to think about what might go wrong with an experiment, and then I have to think about how to design my experiment to deal with that possibility. The longer I do science, the more at ease I am with this process. The fascinating part to me, though, is that the longer I do science, the more I realize how very little control we have over the things that matter most. Almost three years ago, I lost a beloved college professor to cancer. Medicine could not save him. Medicine couldn’t even predict how fast the cancer would take him down: they told him six months, he was dead after two. Losing Ned broke my heart. He wasn’t just my professor. He was my mentor, a father figure, a dear friend. He is the reason I’m earning a PhD in neuroscience. By extension, he’s the reason I met Matt, a man who reminds me of Ned so deeply that it’s hard not to think that we were meant to meet on one cold December evening in 2005. Matt and I met just six months before Ned died.

Ned’s death still haunts me. Life is fragile. But I think Ned lived his life knowing full well that someday he would die. Rather than being afraid of death, he loved every minute of his life. He bought a Harley and loved riding it around. He taught his students brilliantly; he loved us and he loved being a professor. He loved Albion College, and Albion loved him right back. Ned loved the idea of love; he told me that he and his wife had a phrase to describe how amazed they were at their relationship: “The reality is better than the fantasy.” Ned was a family man. He and his wife were crazy in love with each other, even after twenty years of marriage. Between the two of them, they had four children from previous marriages. Ned and his wife adored all the kids. I imagine that their home was a very happy place to be.

It is hard to believe that Ned’s really gone because I feel his presence so strongly in my life. My atheism, my compassion, my enthusiasm, my resilience—all of these things were sculpted by Ned. I was good starting material for him, no doubt, but I would not be the same person now if I hadn’t set foot in his Philosophy 101 class almost ten years ago. I think Ned and I recognized a kindred spirit in each other; we took a liking to one another almost right away, and we stuck together until he left this world. My world is greyer without him in it.

I like to think that Ned would be really proud of me, so close to finishing my PhD. He would laugh if I told him that I’m thinking about studying courtship behavior in flies after I graduate. When he was alive, he was greatly amused by my fly pimping. I spend much of my work life facilitating sex, albeit between insects, not people. I think he would have loved to learn more about what flies can teach us about ourselves, or at least our genes. Ned loved to learn.

Although finishing my PhD is a Big Deal, it feels like small potatoes compared to what I’ve already done. I’m ready to graduate. I wish I could share this time with Ned. I wish he could listen to my public thesis seminar in August, I wish we could share a Scotch afterward, I wish we could talk about motorcycles and Europe and love and sex. I wish he was still here. But he’s not. From here on out, it’s just me. And even though I don’t like it, I know I can do it. I just wish I didn’t have to do it without him.

* * *

Ned loved to cook. It was another thing I loved about him. He loved simple food and complex food. He loved pizza and beer, meat and seafood. He loved the heat of Indian and Cajun food. Ned taught me that tastebuds don’t live very long, probably because they stand a good chance of being killed by a toxin. Ned also gave me my first lesson about how spicy food releases all sorts of feel-good chemicals in our brains, so Cajun food might really be addictive—cayenne pepper could be a drug!

I love spicy food too. I’m about halfway through my very first bottle of red crushed chile peppers, a spice I’ve come to know and love in recent years. But cayenne pepper is good too, especially in a sweet-spicy chickpea stew that’s just perfect for serving over rice with a dollop of yogurt. I don’t know how Ned would feel about this dish—it’s one of those sweet meets savory combinations, and not everyone goes for that. But I do, and this dish gets bonus points for being an easy, middle-of-the-week dinner, something you can throw together while you nibble on an appetizer and unwind for a while.

I’m really bad about following recipes exactly as written, even the first time I make something. This stew is no different. But I think it’s fair to say that this recipe is forgiving because I haven’t made it the same way twice yet, but it’s treated me very well nonetheless. So I encourage you to follow your gut and your tastebuds—make this recipe your own. Ned would approve.

Moroccan Chickpea Stew with Carrots and Raisins
Adapted from Vegetarian Times
Serves 3-4

I love sweet-spicy-hot food. Thai food is a good example, and so is this Moroccan-inspired stew in which chickpeas, carrots, and raisins are simmered together in a broth rich with cinnamon, cayenne, and cumin. Oh, this is so good, much better than it deserves to be because it’s really a snap to make. I like to serve it over rice. Finally, don’t forget that spoonful of yogurt on top. Tangy yogurt complements the sweet heat of this stew; it seems to bring all the flavors together, like a conductor with his orchestra. It’s lovely.

For the stew:
2 tbsp. olive oil
1 onion, thinly sliced
3 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 tsp. ground tumeric
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. ground cumin
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
1 14.5-oz. can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
3 medium to large carrots, ends trimmed, peeled, and sliced into thin rounds
1/4 cup raisins
2 cups vegetable stock or water
Salt and pepper to taste
Handful of fresh cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped (optional but very tasty)

For serving:
Rice, such as basmati
Plain yogurt (I like the option of adding more yogurt to my portion as I eat my way down, so don’t be skimpy here. I’d recommend maybe 1/2 to 2/3 of a cup of yogurt to eat with the whole pot of stew.)

1) In a soup pot or Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté for a few minutes or until it has softened and has a bit of color. Add the garlic and sauté for another 30 seconds or so. Add the spices and sauté, stirring frequently, for another 30 seconds until fragrant and toasty.
2) Stir in the chickpeas, carrots, raisins, and vegetable stock or water. Cover and simmer for 20-25 minutes, or until the carrots have softened to tenderness. Stir occasionally while the stew is simmering.
3) Into each serving bowl, place a scoop or two of rice and then ladle the chickpea stew over the rice. Sprinkle with some fresh cilantro leaves. Serve a bowl of yogurt at the table to let eaters add yogurt on top if they’d like.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Best Kind of Plate

It’s probably time for me to face the truth: I am a bowl girl at heart. It’s not that I don’t eat things off of plates, because I do. Instead, it’s that recipes that end with phrases like “serve in deep bowls” just call to me. They sing, they chirp, they chant my name like a magical incantation. I love soup and cereal. I could live off those things, and with frequent spoonfuls of peanut or almond butter, I think I do. I’m not unhappy about the state of things. I’ve got lots of bowls in my kitchen, and they exist in a continual rotation of use-wash-dry-return to cabinet.

But plates have their place. I had a plate of excellent, excellent Japanese Pan Noodles at Noodles & Company on Friday night. That, along with a fruity yogurt and the new issue of Gourmet, was my reward for surviving another hectic week in the lab. I adore Japanese Pan Noodles. Every time I realize my work day is going to be extending into the 7 o’clock hour, I immediately think JAPANESE PAN NOODLES! Sweet and spicy, fat and chewy, with nubs of fried tofu and slivers of vegetables, pan noodles are just about the only thing that can make me happy I’m working late. How did I ever live without Japanese Pan Noodles?

Plenty of other good things are eaten off of plates. Several of you came through with shining colors when I asked for suggestions a few weeks ago. I owe you an apology for taking so long to put together a nice, neat list, but maybe if I promise you something really spectacular today, you’ll forgive me. I do thank you for not throwing a plate at me! I’ve ordered the recipes by meal just to give the list a sense of rhythm.

* For breakfast (or any time, really) Nick, our Peanut Butter Boy, has an amazing-sounding recipe for a Platecake, a plate-sized pancake. Every time I thought about this recipe, I kept calling it a “mancake,” which made me laugh. My only question is this: how ripe is too ripe for the bananas in this recipe? Because I’ve got some spotty bananas sitting on the table right now, but I just don’t know if they are past their platecake-prime.

* The recipe offered by ttfn300 seems like a Saturday lunch dish to me: Kale Skins, a riff on twice-baked potatoes that packs sauteed kale into cheesy mashed potatoes stuffed into sturdy potato skins. (As an aside, I love the name Kale Skins!)

* My dear friend Nicole sent me a link for one of her favorite workhorse casseroles, Polenta and Vegetable Bake from EatingWell. She writes, “I wouldn’t say it’s AMAZING, but it’s good comfort food that’s easy to prepare. I actually love casseroles, and this one is on the healthier end of casseroles. It has an Italian flare, with the tomato sauce and basil. The most time consuming part is chopping, and then it bakes for a while. It’s very flexible in terms of how much cheese and/or vegetables you include. I usually throw in more vegetables, because I chop a larger eggplant or something. It re-heats very well, which is a big plus for my meal-planning and expenses.” Thank you, Nicole!

* And finally, Laurie laughed at this whole plate thing and suggested I make a soupy bowl of vegetables and tofu. The only thing this recipe is missing is some noodles! There’s nothing better than slurping noodles, especially on a Friday night.

The best kind of plate, though, is the one that appears after the main course: the mixed dessert plate. When it comes to dessert, I’m firmly pro-plate. I do like the occasional bowl of ice cream, or a few spoonfuls of my Raspberry Cookie Pudding, but again and again, I come back to the same kind of dessert: cookies. I find them utterly charming: almost bite-sized, studded with dried fruit or chocolate chips, nubbly with nuts, cookies are what I fantasize about baking when I feel anxious or stressed. It’s funny: I don’t really fantasize about eating dozens of cookies, just baking them. Perhaps it’s because cookies remind me of simpler times and my younger self. The Tollhouse Chocolate Chip Cookie was the first recipe I really mastered. I’m a better baker now—for one thing, I use real butter and my cookies are only flat and thin when I want them to be—but cookie dough still has the ability to let me call upon the child I used to be. I will skip work-outs, stay up late, leave a mess in the kitchen, do whatever it takes to fulfill my cookie-baking needs. It’s a little obsessive, I know, but it makes me happy.

Cookies are the perfect item for the mixed dessert plate. The idea is this: by choosing several small items to eat for dessert, you create a mixed dessert plate that lets you have a taste of everything that sounds good. For example, sometimes I like a spoonful of Barney Butter for dessert. So I’ll have that, and because Barney Butter is pretty innocent as far as desserts go, I might have a square of peppermint bark (left over from Christmas) and a cookie. The key is to take portions that provide just a bite or three so that you don’t put yourself into a sugar coma.

Many cookies are quite rich, almost overwhelming with their buttery sweetness. These cookies can still work with the mixed dessert plate if they’re small, but I’ve got an even better idea for you: Walnut Wafers. These cookies, made from a most unusual set of ingredients, are sophisticated and irresistible. They’re a vegan oatmeal cookie that bakes into thin, chewy-crispy discs—wafers, if you will. They taste like walnuts, only better: sweet with a hint of cinnamon and the occasional chocolate chip, they’ve got a deep nutty flavor and a tiny edge of bitterness. These little treats are amazing, and I’m not the only one who thinks so. I loved them so much that I foisted them on every person I could find: Matt, Daphna, my friend Daine, and Daine’s wife, Amanda. Matt doesn’t even like nuts in his desserts, but sometimes I just won’t take no for an answer.

Daine is one of my newest friends, and he and I both love to cook. I was so eager for Daine to try these cookies that I filled a Ziploc baggie with Walnut Wafers and handed them off, instructing him to share with Amanda. He came back to me a few days later, telling me that Amanda loved them. “These are so good!” she’d say, dipping into their cookie supply. “I just can’t stop eating them!” Upon hearing this, I beamed—what bliss! But Daine wasn’t feeling the bliss. “Okay,” he’d say to Amanda. “I get it. You like the cookies.” And they’d repeat this routine, over and over, until finally, Daine brought out the big gun: key lime pie. You see, Daine is quite territorial about his cooking prowess, and he just wasn’t going to stand by helplessly while his wife fell in love with a dessert that someone else made. Key lime pie is her favorite, he told me, and only key lime pie would be powerful enough to break the spell of those damn Walnut Wafers.

I hooted and howled when Daine told me this story. I’m not territorial at all about my cooking or the people I love. I don’t know why—I’ve certainly gone green with envy in the past—but somehow in my ripe old age, I’ve mellowed. I don’t pout jealously. Instead, I share. And so it is that I’m sharing my Walnut Wafers with you. Add them to your mixed dessert plate. Just don’t try to eat them with key lime pie—you might induce a food fight.

Walnut Wafers
Adapted from Vegetarian Times
Makes ~40 cookies, plus or minus a few

I cannot believe how much Vegetarian Times undersold this recipe. These cookies are phenomenally good, possibly the most interesting and delicious thing I’ve eaten all year. The recipe was part of a VT feature on heart health, so these cookies were originally named “The Heart-Healthiest Chocolate Chip Cookies in the World.” VT did not tell me that these cookies would make me rethink my entire concept of what a vegan cookie is and can be. Instead, the magazine focused on the nutritional content of these cookies, which made me think that maybe this idea of healthy desserts gets taken too far sometimes.

I was very curious to see how this recipe would turn out, so I gave it a whirl. I tweaked the recipe a bit right off the bat, ditching the additional rolled oats in favor of a smoother texture. During my first round of baking, I found that big two-inch balls of cookie dough spread and spread and spread, which alone would have been okay, but the cookies are also very delicate. These giant cookies flopped off my flipper and collapsed through the gaps of my wire cooling racks. Gah—so frustrating!

To troubleshoot the recipe, I made the cookies smaller and thus arrived in cookie paradise. Small cookies were easy to handle, and their texture was wonderful: crisp edges, chewy middles, and melty chips of chocolate strewn throughout. Once I got my recipe perfected, I could not have cared less that these cookies are made with heart-healthy ingredients like walnuts and oatmeal. It is nice to take a break from the butter-eggs-white flour of traditional cookies, but Walnut Wafers are delicious enough that you don’t need to apologize for these “healthy” cookies. You can serve them to your friends and let them praise you profusely for your mad baking skills.

Oh, and one last thing. If you make these cookies with certified gluten-free oats, then the cookies are gluten-free in addition to being vegan. That means even more people can enjoy Walnut Wafers—bliss!

1 cup walnuts
1 1/2 tbsp. canola oil
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup water
1 tsp. vanilla
3/4 cup oat flour (you can make your own by whirling rolled oats in the blender until powdery. That’s what I do.)
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. ground cinnamon
3/4 cup bittersweet chocolate chips (vegans and gluten-free people, be sure to check your chocolate to make sure it meets your requirements)

1) Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a Silpat.
2) Blend the walnuts in a food processor for 30 seconds, or until they are ground into a fine meal. Add the canola oil and blend for 2-3 minutes to create a paste. Scrape the paste into a mixing bowl.
3) Combine the brown sugar and water in a small saucepan and bring the mixture to a boil. Pour the sugar water over the walnut paste, add the vanilla, and stir until smooth.
4) Stir together the oat flour, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon in a separate bowl. Combine the flour mixture with the walnut mixture. Cool for ten minutes. Fold in the chocolate chips.
5) Drop the cookie dough onto the prepared sheets in small spoonfuls. I like the texture of these cookies when they are rather small, so I’d recommend using 1-2 tsp. of dough per cookie. Bake for 8-10 minutes (my cookies need the full 10 minutes to achieve that lovely crispy edge). Cool on the baking sheet for 10 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Lucky One

Greetings, dear readers! It’s time to announce the lucky winner of last week’s giveaway.

Technology is very useful in these situations. I used the Random Integer Generator at to pick one very lucky reader, who is...

(Drumroll please while I present the data)

Random Integer Generator
Here are your random numbers:1
Timestamp: 2009-04-07 17:08:08 UTC

ttfn300! Congratulations, my dear. You were the first commenter on last week’s post, therefore 1 = you. We should get in touch by e-mail so that I can send your prize to the correct mailing address.

Thank you all for your comments last week and for continuing to stop by this little blog of mine. I hope I can brighten your days as much as you brighten mine.

Have a great week!

Monday, April 6, 2009

Three Secrets Worth Sharing

As a human being, there is no greater compliment than being entrusted with someone’s secret. When someone shares a secret with me, I always feel this sense of honor and responsibility: it’s now my duty to guard the secret! It could be that because I have a big mouth and I talk a lot, people feel compelled to shush me by labeling their news as a secret. I’m okay with that. Secrets are wonderful. Sometimes the content of a secret is pretty amazing, but more than that, secrets are great because they contain privileged information. Even dull news acquires a sparkle when it’s a secret. I love that delicious thrill the moment before someone shares their secret with me. My ears grow a little wider as I hold my breath and lean in closer, the better to hear this important announcement. I’m practically giddy with anticipation! Occasionally the secret lives up to its promise, like the first time an old boyfriend told me he loved me. Now THAT was a good secret. But often, the secret is more mundane or it’s a sad secret, troubling or unhappy. It’s rare that I’m tempted to break my promise and spill a secret that doesn’t belong to me. That’s a tremendous relief. My brain would explode if I filled it up with information that threatened to spill out of my mouth every time I opened it.

Have you ever heard the phrase about money burning a hole in my pocket? Secrets feel like that to me when they involve food or cooking. That’s why I keep depositing my secrets here, every week. I love writing this site, if for no other reason than to have some sort of record of all the cool things I’ve learned and good foods I’ve cooked. Keeping your recipe collection on-line has another perk: when you’re organizing a cooking party, recipes can be shared with just a few clicks. It’s so easy! I also enjoy not harassing my friends with annoying e-mails about all the things I’m putting in my belly. Now they know that if they want to hear about that sort of thing, they can find it right here. I love it.

In the almost two years since I started writing Life, Love, and Food, I’ve started to undergo a transformation. I think I am slowly becoming a cook. Now, I’ve thought of myself as a person who cooks for a while now. I’ve always loved recipes—they’re like little word maps, marking the path to edible nirvana. But lately, I’m not as keen on following recipes. I still love them and use them, but I seem to be cooking more and more straight out of the fridge with no piece of paper serving as the middleman between me and dinner. Some might say this is a very positive step for me—Matt, for example, who tells me his brain is one giant cookbook. (It’s true, and he’s a great cook.) The interesting thing is that I’m accumulating my own little set of kitchen secrets, tricks I’m using these days to fill in the gaps that emerge when I’m cooking without a book. In fact, one of these secrets does find its origins in a book, and I’m sure the other two can be found in print somewhere. But right now, they feel like my secrets, and I’m just burnin’ up here, dying to share them with you.

Broccoli, eggs, garlic: these are rather mundane ingredients. By themselves, they aren’t showstoppers. They are building blocks, ingredients with which we build dinner. Because they are so ubiquitous, the smart cook has a hundred-and-one ways to use them. The frugal cook uses every last bit of her inventory. I want to be smart and frugal—mostly just to make up for all the times I’m dumb and wasteful—so let us start with broccoli, perhaps the least glamorous of the trio. I have been eating a lot of broccoli ever since I discovered how delicious Roasted Broccoli and Tofu is. I think it’s my favorite meal these days. But the dish only calls for broccoli florets, which, unless you only purchase florets, leaves a bunch of gnarly-looking stems for you to frown at. The best use of these gnarly-looking stems is Broccoli Slaw. It’s just shredded broccoli, but it’s really tasty—juicy, a little sweet with that earthy and distinctive broccoli tang. Broccoli Slaw is an excellent side dish and a very nice way to sneak another green vegetable into your diet. It can be tossed with a salad dressing or even other vegetables for a mixed slaw—I like shredded carrots and finely diced radishes.

Broccoli Slaw
Yield: Variable (I use 1-2 stalks to make a single serving.)

1 or more broccoli stalks

1) Using a sharp knife, chop off the ends of the broccoli stalks. Then hold the broccoli stalks upright with one hand and use your knife to slice away the rough outside layers. You might trim away a substantial portion of the stalk—that’s okay. The goal is to remove the more fibrous layers and leave the juicy inner stalk behind.
2) Once you have the smooth inner stalk, shred it using coarsely using a box grater. Broccoli stalks are pretty easy to shred—easier than carrots or even cheese, I find. Proceed with your plans for the Broccoli Slaw.

So we’ve got our green vegetable squared away. Now we need to think about protein. When I think about protein, I tend to have four ideas pop up at one time: beans, cheese, nuts, and eggs. All of these foods are excellent choices, and I eat them abundantly. Eggs, however, are my favorite last-minute meal-booster. An egg makes a meal out of leftovers. It’s a lovely option when you are cooking for one because they come in single-serving packages! The easiest egg recipe I’ve found is a recipe from Sunlight Café for baked eggs. When Grey’s Anatomy is calling my name, I crack an egg into my little white ramekin, pop it in the oven, set the timer, and disappear into the world of Seattle Grace Hospital for ten minutes or so. When the timer beeps, I check my egg. Sometimes I’ll add a handful of shredded cheddar, sometimes I just leave it plain and unadorned. I tuck the egg back into the oven for a few minutes and then it’s dinner time. The egg joins the rest of my meal—noodles, salad, or whatever other simple foods will make a nice living room floor picnic—and I eat, tired, happy, and probably crying over Izzie and her brain tumor.

Simple Baked Egg for One
Adapted from Mollie Katzen’s Sunlight Café
Yield: One serving to accompany other dishes for a dinner for one

This recipe is really bare bones. It makes a perfectly fine egg, especially if you don’t overcook it (the white can get a little rubbery if the egg is too well-cooked). I think it would be delicious to add a pat of butter or a small splash of heavy cream to the ramekin before adding the egg. You can also, as I describe above, sprinkle a handful of cheese over the egg at the ten-minute mark.

Nonstick cooking spray
1 large egg
Salt and pepper to taste

1) Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Spray an ovenproof ramekin with cooking spray and set on a baking tray. Crack the egg into the ramekin and season with salt and pepper.
2) Bake the egg for about ten to fifteen minutes until the yolk is cooked to your liking. I like my egg cooked in the thirteen to fifteen minute range, although one of these days I’m going to get daring and try it at twelve minutes. You can eat the egg straight from its ramekin or slide it on top of something else, like noodles or a nice piece of toast.

Speaking of toast, that brings me to my final kitchen secret. This one I’m almost certain you’ve heard of before, but it was new to me: the garlic-rubbed toast. My friend Cory told me about this—actually, bragged about it is more like it—when I was telling him about Daphna’s showstopping garlic bread recipe. To my mind, there is nothing in this world that can top D’s garlic bread, so when my friend Josh deviated from the recipe while making garlic bread for our fall equinox dinner, I was a little unnerved. One would think that after cooking with Matt, who doesn’t even use recipes most of the time, I woudn’t mind a little artistic expression from the garlic bread-maker. But that would be untrue. I did manage to bite my tongue because I enjoy Josh’s company and for goodness sake’s, it’s just garlic bread! I explained all of this to Cory, and he shared with me his super-easy, super-tasty trick: take a raw clove of garlic and rub it all over your toasted bread. Voila! Garlic toast. This trick is useful if your meal is already rather rich, and buttery garlic bread would put everyone into a food coma. It’s also a nice trick if you are topping the garlic toasts with something rich or melted, like a smushed Egg and Cheese Muffin. Maybe Cory deserves bragging rights here after all.

It occurs to me now that I have just given you the fixings for almost an entire meal: vegetable, egg, bread. If I had a nice big salad to accompany my broccoli slaw, baked egg, and garlic toast, I’d be one happy home cook. Little fuss, no leftovers, full belly. My mother ought to be very proud of me.

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There’s still time for you to win a copy of Ammie’s awesome cookbook, Clove-Minded: A Valentine Cookbook! Leave a comment about your romantic adventures in the kitchen here, and tomorrow I’ll draw one winner out of the entries. Right now, each contestant has a 33% chance of winning, so the odds are good! (But, as the saying goes, the goods are odd. So it goes around here.)