Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Introducing Project Olive Oil

When Matt and I were in California a couple months ago, we went to the most wonderful tasting room, that of J. Lohr Vineyards and Wines.  I loved their wines, especially a Riesling that our pourer adored.  I adored our pourer, an elegant older woman, maybe in her fifties, with short funky hair and glasses with these awesome sparkling turquoise rims.  She was so cool and mellow—an absolute delight.  The tasting room had a fun, relaxed vibe to it, like the whole place was infused with the quiet joy of people doing something they love.  Before we left, I flipped through a copy of a book by Peggy Knickerbocker called Olive Oil: From Tree to Table.  A whole book about olive oil!  I really, really wanted to take a copy of it home with me, but old miserly habits die hard.  I put it back on the shelf, but I took home with me this realization: no matter how much wine I sip, food comes first with me.

I also took home with me the desire to recreate some of that tasting room magic but with food instead of wine.  I loved all the sniffing, the swirling, the sipping, the sharing that happens in those tasting rooms.  I liked being surprised by the differences and complexities among the wines we tasted.  With wine-drinking, there is both a timeless quality and an acute sense of time.  People have been drinking wine for ages, so when we swirl and sip, we clink glasses with our ancestors.  But the experience of a particular glass of wine is utterly dependent on that moment in time: how long the wine was aged in barrels, then bottles.  How long that particular bottle has been open.  How long the wine has been sitting in that glass, your glass.  And my favorite part, what food you are eating while you drink that glass of wine.

To be perfectly honest, I used to think that people who described bizarre taste sensations, whether in wine or food, were total bullshitters.  I’d secretly roll my eyes at their pretentiousness and go back to drinking my wine that tasted like—surprise!—alcoholic fruit.  But then I heard about this study conducted at Northwestern University in which people’s brain activity and subjective reports suggested that exposure to a variety of mints can enhance their ability to smell differences among the mints.  Suddenly, it gave me hope that I too could become a better smeller and a better taster if I trained my senses!  How cool is that?

To add fuel to my fire, my friend Asmodeus was frighteningly ill for more than a month last year, and afterward, he complained that he couldn’t taste all the layers in wine that he’d enjoyed prior to his illness.  While he was sick, he didn’t drink any wine, so my hypothesis was that his tasting prowess was in part dependent upon frequent tastings: use it or lose it, buddy.  He did eventually recover his wine palate and has been drinking happily ever since.

Asmodeus’s example showed me that if I were to embark upon a tasting project, it would need to be something I enjoy regularly—preferably daily.  And it would be more fun for me if I can enjoy it in different contexts, the same way that wine can be enjoyed alone, with a snack, during a full-blown meal, with dessert, or even as a stand-alone dessert.  I wanted my tasting project to have that kind of flexibility and spontaneity.

Introducing Project Olive Oil.

Few ingredients other than olive oil get daily face-time in my kitchen.  My sweet tooth tells me this could have been Project Sugar—maybe that will be my next project—but for now, it’s Project Olive Oil.  The idea is this: every other month or so, I’ll try out a new extra-virgin olive oil and report my findings in a new post on this site.  My goal is to keep the project going for at least a year.  That’s six bottles of olive oil, a new one every two months.  I think my wallet can handle that.

Because Project Olive Oil is a tasting project, I don’t care about finding the “best” olive oil.  In fact, I hope all the oils I try are tasty.  My goal is to explore a single ingredient, cooking and tasting my way through different recipes.  But I am interested in trying different olive oils in the same contexts, so I plan to run each specimen through a rotation of recipes in which oil is a crucial element:

* Bread with oil and vinegar.  Self-explanatory.  And oh so good.

* My Chicago Salad.  I use olive oil for two ingredients here: dressing the lettuce leaves and making the fresh croutons.  A good oil just makes this salad sing with flavor, but it’s certainly not the only flavor here.

* Caprese salad.  A quintessential example of how incredible ingredients can elevate simple to sublime.  This one is dependent upon having good tomatoes, so I’m reserving the right to play around with this one—caprese salad in the summer, perhaps slow-roasted tomatoes in the winter?  I’m open to other tomato ideas here.

* Baked goods.  This is a bit of a wild-card category because I want the freedom to play around with different recipes.  I’m not ready to pick a single recipe (like, say, an olive oil cake) to see how all my selections perform in the same baking task.  But I do think this is an important category.  High-quality extra-virgin olive oil can be expensive, and baked goods need more oil than a salad.  That means the flavor needs to be really spectacular to dazzle me in baked goods.  (By the way, my sweet tooth is pretty excited about this category!)

I am excited that this project has an unusual shopping element to it.  My initial observations indicate that there aren’t a huge number of artisan-made or estate-grown olive oils that can be purchased at, say, Whole Foods.  Most of the olive oils on the shelf at a supermarket don’t seem to be very distinct from each other, and they tend to run about ten to fifteen bucks for a pint.  I did find one very good specimen for Project Olive Oil at Whole Foods; its identity shall be revealed in good time.

I suspect that the artisan-made oils will turn out to the be most interesting and delicious.  They may turn me into a poor woman with a very large collection of expensive olive oils.  Nevertheless, I shall persevere!  My plan is to start off with local shopping; we’ll see how long I last.  There is an intriguing olive oil store at Old Orchard Shopping Center called Oil & Vinegar.  I stopped in very briefly last month to check it out and felt a little dizzy staring at all the choices.  I’m excited to return with a more specific idea of oils I’d like to try. 

Finally, let us refrain from using any acronyms for Project Olive Oil, shall we?

Monday, July 27, 2009

Dessert, Slurped Noisily from a Spoon

I expected to write more about the writing of my PhD thesis this month, but it seems that while I was busy writing (and shopping, and talking, and cooking, and eating), July slipped quietly into the past.  Today we have just five days left of the month, and I have sixteen days until my thesis is due to my committee.

I feel a little guilty admitting this, but the truth is that this month has been the easiest month of my entire graduate career.  I know this isn’t true for a lot of thesis-writers.  I remember watching my college roommates huff and puff their way through their senior undergraduate theses.  In addition to the hours and hours and HOURS they spent researching and writing, there were tears, anger, late-night baking sessions, and more than one aggressive spoonful of ice cream, scooped straight from carton to mouth, a defiant attempt to reclaim some sense of pleasure from an otherwise exhausting semester.  To their credit, my dear roommates both finished their theses and graduated with honors.  I was so proud of them.

The only thing my thesis-writing seems to have in common with that of my roommates is the baking and the ice cream.  I’ve already put in my hours (MANY hours) of research, and most of my work was already written up for publication, even if it has not yet been published.  I did have a brief spell of tears and anger at the beginning, when I had to start writing my toughest and most incomplete chapter, but that chapter has long since been passed along to my advisor for his reading pleasure.  But more comforting than the ease of writing this thesis is the sense of reassurance that I am going to graduate AND that I have a job waiting for me afterward.  I haven’t felt this relaxed about my future prospects in years!  All this relaxation rendered me mute about my thesis, at least on this site.  It also sent me into the kitchen for lots of cooking and baking, followed by lots of eating.  I’ve been celebrating!  I’m pretty sure I’m only going to earn one PhD in my lifetime, so I figure I deserve to savor this sweet time in my life.

For the first few weeks of this month, I wondered if I would be adding ten pounds to my hips along with a few letters to my name.  Since I was working at home, I had unlimited access to my kitchen and all the goodies within: gourmet chocolate bars, homemade honey semi-freddo, the most recent batch of cookies, frozen cake and almond blondies in the freezer.  Everything was made just the way I like it.  My sweet tooth was having a field day!  And to be honest, I just wasn’t in the mood to worry about my weight.  I didn’t want to worry about anything at all—I’d had enough of that over the past six years.  Maybe I would just take an extra walk around the block and call it a day.

But sanity prevailed as my sweet tooth began demanding fruit as often as any other treat.  And really, the fruit at this time of year is about as good as it gets, plump and sweet and juicy, practically falling off the trees and bushes into our laps.  In my case, I think my sweet tooth cares not about calories or fat grams; it just wants the good stuff, like  a pound or so of organic cherries for $2.99 at Whole Foods, perfect for snacking and spitting out the pits.  They are also perfect tossed into a blender and whirled with some milk, yogurt, sugar, and cocoa powder to make an after-dinner dessert soup, to be slurped noisily from a spoon.

Because cherries are a quintessentially seasonal food to me, I find it almost impossible not to buy them every time I go shopping.  I just love ‘em.  I also love how they taste so dark and fruity when eaten with chocolate.  A dessert soup seems like the perfect way to showcase that combination.  I like to top it with a few spoonfuls of granola, an idea I borrowed from Kath.  The granola adds a little toothsome crunch and makes it seem more soup-like to me; most importantly, it’s totally delicious.  My PhD thesis may never again see the light of day after I graduate, but I’m sure this soup will, at least in my kitchen.

Chocolate-Cherry Dessert Soup with Homemade Granola Topping

Serves 1

First things first: make a batch of granola.  I find it handy to keep a container of it hanging around my kitchen at all times.  A few suggestions are listed below.

Second: because this is a dessert, I make it a bit sweeter than I would a smoothie or yogurt snack.  But feel free to adjust the amount of sugar to your own taste.

Third: I love how this soup is like a cold, cherried version of hot chocolate.  I find that cocoa powder is very stubborn about dissolving in hot chocolate, perhaps because most recipes instruct you to use at least a tablespoon per serving.  In this recipe, it dissolves easily, perhaps because there isn’t a lot of it, perhaps because it is aided by the fat and protein in the yogurt.  (Any other guesses about what helps cocoa powder to dissolve?)  At any rate, it makes for smooth, chocolatey slurping here.

5 dark red cherries, halved and pitted

1/2 cup yogurt (lowfat is fine; full-fat is tastier)

1/2 cup milk (lowfat is fine)

1 tsp. cocoa powder

1 tbsp. granulated sugar, or to taste

2-3 tbsp. homemade granola, such as Addictive Peanut Butter Granola or French Chocolate Granola

1)  Place the cherry halves, yogurt, milk, cocoa powder, and sugar in a blender and blend until mostly smooth.  Taste and adjust the flavor with more cocoa or sugar if needed.

2)  Pour the cherry mixture into a bowl and top with granola.  Eat with a spoon, slurping noisily if you like.

PS This soup is yummy with breakfast too, alongside some toast and eggs.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Green Bean Territory

It is amazing what people will just give you for free: advice, directions, warnings.  Now granted, all this free stuff comes with a price, which is that you may not want what’s being given away for free.  One must sift through the silt to find the gems.  But when that gem comes my way, in the form of a recipe, I’m muttering the directions under my breath all the way to Whole Foods and into my kitchen.

One never knows when she is going to acquire a new recipe.  There are the obvious places of course, like cookbooks, magazines, and the dozens of excellent food blogs out here in the ether.  I love all those places and cook from them frequently.  But my favorite way to acquire a new recipe is a little more subtle.  I can’t even go about it deliberately.  It has to happen on its own time.  That method is the spontaneous, excited, shared-in-the-middle-of-a-conversation exchange.  I highly recommend it.

To understand how this method works for me, I have to tell you that in my non-blog life, I make no secret of my love for food and cooking.  When I first met my friend Daine, we discovered quickly that we both love to cook.  Daine, I learned a bit later, is a fabulous cook.  From his homemade breads to his (wife’s) cilantro hummus to his amazing cheesecakes and ginger molasses cookies, Daine is like a walking issue of Bon Appétit.  I want to eat everything he makes.  He’s so generous too!  If he makes something particularly delicious, like a lusciously rich and creamy mocha cheesecake, he’ll save me a slice, tuck it in his bag, and bring it all the way from his Hyde Park kitchen to our lab in Evanston.  Few people have ever brought me cheesecake before; I’m almost afraid of what I could be convinced to do if someone used cheesecake as a bribe to get the job done.  But I digress; Daine isn’t like that at all.  He’s got a feisty, snarky sense of humor, and he’s almost too confident sometimes, but he is also one of the kindest, most genuinely caring people I’ve ever met.  He also makes one of the best ginger molasses cookies I’ve ever eaten.  He is superlative all around.

Daine and I chat frequently about food.  I like that I can ask him, “So, what have you made lately?” and I always get an interesting answer.  I’m happy to run into him in a space that facilitates chatting.  The lunchroom at work is one of those spaces.  The Fly Room is another.  It was just another Friday evening in the Fly Room when Daine and I were chatting about our dinner plans.  I don’t remember exactly how our conversation meandered into green bean territory, but that was the salient part for me.  He described for me the green bean dish his mom makes with the beans plucked straight from her garden: a slow-cooked pile of beans, gently infused with garlic and sesame oil, followed by a splash of soy sauce, and a pinch each of cayenne pepper and sugar.  The final touch was a handful of slivered, toasted almonds, tossed over the beans at the table.  The whole thing sounded amazing.  That night, my little legs couldn’t get me to Whole Foods fast enough for a pound of green beans.

Daine’s mom’s recipe did not disappoint.  I had to consult a cookbook to figure out exactly how to cook the beans, but that was easy enough with my fat copy of Passionate Vegetarian sitting up so straight and eager on my cookbook shelf.  I decided to infuse the sesame oil with garlic and then remove the garlic for the long, slow cooking that would coax the beans into caramelized, meltingly tender pods.  That way, the garlic wouldn’t burn and the beans could be cooked for as long as I wanted.  I added the garlic back into the finished beans at the end for an extra bite of earthy flavor.

I’ve always liked green beans but always frozen or canned, never fresh.  This recipe has made me a believer.  I’m even branching out beyond the slow-cooked green bean to embrace the snappy crispness of a quickly blanched, barely cooked bean that has me bookmarking new recipes, such as the article in June 2009’s Bon Appétit that described eight(!) new recipes for fresh green beans.  (Eight!)  It’s like the mother lode.  I’ve gotta start buying more than a pound of green beans each week if I’m going to sample all these recipes.  But Daine’s mom’s recipe has dibs on my cast-iron skillet for the rest of the summer.

Daine’s Mom’s Slow-Cooked Green Beans

Adapted from my friend Daine and his mom’s favorite green bean recipe

Serves 2-3

This recipe is terrific.  In a single cast-iron skillet, a pound or so of green beans cooks by a combination of sautéing in sesame oil and braising in their own vegetal juice as they sweat it out inside a lidded chamber.  When they have shriveled into gently bronzed, sweetened pods, you add a splash of soy sauce, some heat in the form of cayenne pepper, and just a touch of sugar to balance everything out.  The result is the taste of a July garden in a single bite.

A word of caution from Daine: be sure to have some liquid in the pan when you add the cayenne.  If you don’t, the heat will create cayenne pepper vapors—“Mace,” says Daine—that induce coughing fits and a frantic splash of water into the skillet.  I think you can guess how he knows this…

~3/4 pound (12 oz.) fresh green beans

1 tbsp. toasted sesame oil

2 cloves garlic

1/2-1 tbsp. soy sauce (your choice; how salty do you want your beans?)

A shake or two of cayenne pepper (maybe 1/8 tsp.?)

Pinch of sugar

1/4 cup slivered almonds, toasted (~5 minutes on a cookie sheet in a 350 degree F oven ought to do the trick)

1)  Prep the green beans: place them in a strainer, rinse them well under cold water, and then break off the stem end.  You can leave the nice tapered pointy end intact.

2)  Heat the sesame oil over medium heat in a large skillet, preferably NOT non-stick.  I use my gorgeous ten-inch cast-iron skillet for this.  Add the garlic, sauté for a minute to infuse the oil, then remove the garlic from the pan to a small plate and set aside for now.

3)  Lower the heat to a low setting.  Add the green beans to the skillet and sauté for a minute, pushing them around frequently.  They might seem a tiny bit crowded if your skillet is a ten-incher like mine, but don’t worry; the beans will cook just fine.  Clamp a tight-fitting lid on the skillet and let the beans cook for about 30-40 minutes, uncovering them and pushing them around every 5-10 minutes.  During this process, you’ll notice two things: the first is that the beans give off a lot of liquid as they are cooking.  The second is that as they give off all that liquid and cook against the hot iron of the skillet, they’ll become a bit shriveled and brown on some sides.  That’s all part of the plan.

4)  Uncover the beans and add the garlic and soy sauce.  Push around to coat the beans in soy sauce and cook until most or all the liquid is evaporated.

5)  If the liquid has all evaporated, add ~1/2 tbsp. water, the cayenne pepper, and the sugar.  Otherwise, just add the cayenne and sugar.  Push around again to distribute the seasonings and let the liquid cook off.

6)  Turn off the heat and transfer the green bean mixture to individual plates or a large serving plate for the table.  Top with toasted almonds and serve.  Try not to get your hopes up that there will be any leftovers.  Plan to make more green beans tomorrow.

Monday, July 13, 2009

A Rainbow to the South

I saw a rainbow the other day on my way home from work.  A real rainbow.  I had to pause and admire it.  It was directly south of me as I stood on Chicago Avenue, outside the Jewel-Osco.  This rainbow was fat and glorious, and it reached straight up into the clouds, a ribbon of color just hanging from the sky.  I was surprised to see it, but I’m always surprised to see rainbows.  I see images of rainbows all the time—I do live in Chicago, after all, home of several famously gay neighborhoods, some of which are decorated festively with rainbows—but it’s rare that I see a real rainbow.  The real ones are much more magical, shimmering elusively in the air.  They lie just out of reach; we can never touch them or find that pot of gold at the bottom.  Rainbows exist for beauty and imagination and to remind us that illusion can be a pleasure and, likewise, pleasure can be an illusion.

The fact that this rainbow stood directly south of me felt apropos.  Just days earlier I delivered an answer to the biggest question I have ever faced: this fall, I will be moving to Texas to start a postdoctoral position at Texas A & M University.  From where I sit right now, Texas is very, very far south.

Why Texas?  The short answer is chance.  I have spent many hours this year thinking about what to do next with my life.  I thought long and hard about science: do I still want to do science?  If not, then what?  But if yes, then what?  I cycled through all sorts of career possibilities.  With some of them, I tried on that career for a spell.  For a while, I was going to teach high school science.  I had lunch with a chemistry teacher whose science fair I had judged in December.  We talked about all sorts of things, including teaching, and at the end of our lunch her advice surprised me.  “It sounds like you do want to teach at the college level,” she said.  “You can always teach high school, but this is like your one shot to be a professor.  You should go for it.”

This wasn’t the first time I’d heard this advice or something similar to it.  But graduate school beat me down, made me question all of my career aspirations, drained me of any ambition, replaced my excitement with bitter cynicism.  The obvious solution was to leave science because clearly science was to blame for all of my misery.  Or was it?  The truth is that yes, science is difficult, but my unhappiness was a multifactorial equation, and I was part of it.  The interesting question was this: if we change part of the equation, what will the result be?

And that’s where Texas comes into the picture.  After lunch with my friend Cheryl the chemistry teacher, I thought long and hard about what a postdoc could be for me.  Clearly it needed to be something other than Graduate School, Part 2.  What if I were more independent, more excited about my work, less scared of my boss?  What if I weren’t in Chicago, with its six brutal months of winter every year?  What if I lived in a place where warm is the default setting, where I almost certainly will not be wearing a wool coat in June?  What if I gave this PhD a chance to really show off?  As I let these questions seep into my brain, it became very clear to me that there were a lot of unknowns and until that moment, I was so convinced that a postdoc would be awful that I wasn’t even willing to consider otherwise.  For all my scientific training, I was unable to see that graduate school, like every experience, is just an experiment.  Change the conditions, get a different result.  It’s that simple.

Finally, I was warmed up to the possibility of a postdoc.  I was still very skeptical, and I certainly wasn’t excited, but I was ready to look and see what I could find.  My friend Josh reminded me to focus on the process, which got me thinking: what do I like about science?  What do I find fascinating?  The answer was simple: I like behavior.  I like flies.  I like molecular biology.  I like experiments.  I like sex.  When I mixed all those things together, I came up with this plan: look for labs that study sexual behavior in fruit flies.  Bingo.

Surprisingly, I found just one lab in the United States that has published a significant number of papers in this area: Hubert Amrein’s lab, located in sunny Durham, North Carolina.  How wonderful!, I thought.  I love Durham!  It’s in the South!  It’s warm!  It’s beautiful!  Nervously, I contacted Dr. Amrein about a position, expecting nothing.  To my surprise, he e-mailed me back quickly and enthusiatically.  One thing led to another, I interviewed with his lab, and boom: job offer.  I was absolutely elated.  The problem was that a week after that, I had a second job offer, this one at the University of Iowa.  It was a great offer, and I was utterly torn between them.

But wait, there was another twist.  Dr. Amrein’s lab was in Durham but it wouldn’t be for much longer, because he had accepted a position at Texas A & M University in College Station, Texas, just a 45-minute car ride from Houston.  Texas?  Seriously?  What?  It was such a bizarre twist, and now my job offer had this totally unknown factor in it: the Texas factor.  What could I possibly think about Texas, having never been there and being filled with all sorts of Northern fears about Texas?  Like, it’s hot.  Really freakin’ hot.  There’s no water—it’s a desert down there, right?  All they eat is beef, corn-fed beef, that they purchased with their oil revenues.  They’ve never even heard of a vegetarian, let alone met one.  Everyone sounds like George W. Bush and they all say “nu-cu-ler” instead of “nu-cleeee-ar,” the way it’s supposed to be pronounced.  And everyone is an evangelical Christian, trying to save the souls of us poor, unbelieving heathens.  God, it sounded like hell.

And yet, Matt had recently moved to Texas, also for work.  He was loving it, but then again, he’s a Southerner.  (Although, to be honest, I don’t know how he pronounces nuclear.  I’ll check and get back to you.)  Once Texas became the home of someone I adore, I started paying more attention to it.  For one thing, the weather in Texas sure looks nice in March.  And I’ve always wanted to live in the South, at least for a little while.  Texas, to my mind, seemed exotic and interesting.  Also, Matt told me today that there are lots of swimming pools in Texas, which is good because I have too many bikinis that I never wear.  I realized that Texas could be a wonderful place to spend a few years as a postdoc.  It could be my next big adventure, in a big beautiful state.

With my two job offers in mind, I proceeded to ignore my decision for a week.  The two offers seemed perfectly balanced; I couldn’t choose between them, and if I chose one, I couldn’t lose.  They were amazing offers, and I wanted to accept both positions.  I knew I couldn’t, but I just wasn’t ready to choose.  Finally, I made a list.  I scribbled down all the things that mattered to me, and I ranked each offer according to these objective criteria.  Then I tallied up the scores and announced the results to myself: I was moving to Texas.

Yes, Texas.  Now that all the hard work is behind me, I’m excited about my new job.  I feel confident that I have what it takes to be successful.  I have this sense of knowing what I’m getting myself into, and knowing what it takes to muddle through the bad times in the lab.  My new boss is very excited about me joining the lab, and I feel hopeful that we will work well together.  But we shall see.  Like the rainbow, these impressions of mine are illusory: the reality may resemble the illusion, but I’ll never find the pot of gold at the bottom.  I hope to be surprised and delighted by what I find  during my next adventure.  I hope they have good grocery stores and farmers’ markets in College Station.  Most of all, I hope I find inspiration.  I’ll take that over a pot of gold any day of the week.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Make It Dirty, Make It Clean

Does unwrapping a banana and slathering it, bite by bite, with peanut butter count as cooking?  If so, then I have been doing a lot of cooking.  If not, then I’ve been doing a lot of uncooking.

Summer is the season of uncooking, and I for one could not be happier.  Between the gloriously warm weather and writing my PhD thesis, I haven’t much time for elaborate cooking plans.  In addition, I’m finding thesis-writing to be strangely exhausting.  It’s almost an exclusively mental exercise, but I find myself physically exhausted after a few hours of serious concentration.  My brain isn’t capable of handling much in the way of recipes right now.

But I love to putter in the kitchen these days, even if I am in a state of Thesis Daze.  The puttering feels wonderfully refreshing after all that time in front of my computer.  It’s a chance to stand up, stretch my legs, fix myself a snack.  My thesis looms so large and unknown in front of me that mundane tasks are tangibly rewarding.  That’s good news, because one mundane task in particular has been giving me trouble, and that’s my sink full of dirty dishes.

Dishes.  I have grown to hate them.  Why is it that after I do all the hard work of feeding myself that I still have to deal with piles of dirty dishes?  Haven’t I done enough?  Can’t I just throw the dirty dishes in the trash with the other stuff I don’t want?  This is, I think, my rebellion after six years of serious home cooking with no dishwasher.  For six years now, I have been washing all my dishes by hand, and I don’t think I can take it any more.  I desperately need either a dishwashing machine or a handsome, hungry man who will let me feed him in exchange for dealing with the mess I make.  Matt is a rather sexy dishwasher and he usually shows up at my door ready to eat, but he’s here far too infrequently to be a reliable solution to my dilemma.  He would be none too pleased with me if I saved up three months’ worth of dirty dishes for him to wash while he visits me!

For now, there is a different man helping me get my kitchen back in order.  His name is Jace Everett, and while I don’t know if he’s a cookin’ man, I do know he’s a singin’ man.  He just put out his second album, Red Revelations, and it is a gem.  You may have heard his song “Bad Things”—it’s the theme song for HBO’s True Blood—and while “Bad Things” has been included as an extra treat on the new album, Jace is so much more than a one-hit wonder.  Red Revelations is lusty, edgy, ironic, and smart.  I’ve listened to it every day since it arrived in my mailbox.  It’s all I really want to hear.  Best of all, it’s the perfect sonic accompaniment to scrubbing all those dirty dishes to shiny wet perfection.

One of my favorite songs on the album is the first track, “Possession.”  It grabbed me the first time I heard it.  I felt like a woman possessed!  The song is about lust, plain and simple.  On the surface, its meaning seems pretty clear: Possession, Why don’t you own me? Name it and claim it babe, I’m your possession.

But I think (and this is what I love about Jace’s lyrics) that by making such an offer, the narrator is trying to control his own lust.  Seize control by giving it up?  It seems rather circular, but let’s not get carried away here; it’s just a song.  An even better set of lyrics from “Possession” sounds a little like this: Naked dirty, Naked clean. Make it quick or make a scene.

Or that’s what I thought at first.  Replace “naked” with “make it” and you have the actual lyrics, not the ones my dirty mind filled in for itself.  I use the real lyrics as my clean-up anthem: Make it dirty, make it clean!  It’s not quite as sexy, but it works for me.

Uncooking is much sexier than washing dishes.  As a bonus, there are fewer dishes to wash!  Jace goes well here too, even if I’m making a girly salad with strawberries and a honey-balsamic dressing.  This is exquisite: a palate cleanser featuring crisp greens, juicy red strawberries, and a drizzle of puckery-sweet dressing.  I’ve been lucky enough to get the greens and berries at my farmers’ market.  Local strawberries won’t be around for much longer this season, so I wanted to slip this salad into the recipe archives before it’s too late.

The combination of strawberries and balsamic vinegar is an old Italian trick.  There’s a reason it’s a classic: it is delicious, especially if the strawberries are very sweet or you give them a little help with a sprinkling of sugar.  Either way, the combination heightens the sweet-tart flavors present in both ingredients.  The perfumes burst forth like a summer thunderstorm, but afterward the mouth feels clean and sparkly.  By combining that effect with salad greens, it’s doubly refreshing.  Here I must confess I have an unusual habit: I often prefer to eat my salad after the main course.  It feels more enjoyable to me that way.  My hunger has been sated, and I can better appreciate all the subtle flavors in fresh produce.  If I try to eat a salad before the main course, I’m usually too ravenous to really notice it—it’s just food.  But afterward, a salad can be a work of art.

When one is writing a thesis, it is hard to make time for art, but one still has to eat.  I find it handy to have a salad that, with just a few minutes of uncooking, can be beautiful, unfussy, and very easy to eat.  It gives me hope that I’ll finish this thesis and have enough energy to celebrate at the finish line.

Salad with Crisp Greens, Strawberries, and Honey-Balsamic Dressing

Serves 1

Salads are often an opportunity to trot out your very best ingredients, and this one is no exception.  My friend Shawn Marie shared with me a pour of the fancy balsamic vinegar she picked out at Whole Foods, and it is delightful in the dressing here.  So if you’ve got a high-quality balsamic, don’t hesitate to use it here—you will be amply rewarded.

2-3 crisp leaves of green leaf or Romaine lettuce

5-6 perfect small strawberries

1 tbsp. honey

1 tbsp. best-quality balsamic vinegar

1)  Prep the  lettuce leaves by rinsing, drying, and tearing them into bite-sized pieces.  Prep the strawberries by rinsing them off, drying them gently, slicing off the green tops, and then slicing the berries into thin slices.  Pile the lettuce on a plate and artfully arrange the strawberries over it.

2)  Whisk together the honey and balsamic vinegar.  Drizzle it over the strawberries and lettuce.  You may not want all of it; in which case, save it for another salad later!  Serve the salad, either as a starter course or (the way I like it) as a palate cleanser between the main course and dessert.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Seeking Recommendations

Dear readers, I have upgraded!  Consider this my pilot post written with Windows Live Writer, a program which I hope will solve my blogging woes.  Internet Explorer 8 will not allow me (and, apparently, anyone else) to copy text from a Word document into Blogger.  Weird!  With as many words as I write, it was very clear to me that this was unacceptable.  The wonky formatting on yesterday’s post was a result of using Firefox.  I thought funky Firefox was a better choice than not posting my piece at all.  Still, I was not happy.  Let’s consider today’s post an experiment.  Everything is an experiment when you are a scientist, especially one who is on the cusp of getting three little letters after her name.

I do have an actual purpose for this post, and that is to seek your recommendations regarding a new laptop computer. The Dell I use now is not really my computer; it belongs to my lab.  When I graduate in September(!), I should give it back.  In the meantime, I need to buy myself a computer.  I’m looking for a PC that has a decent amount of space for storing data.  It must come with built-in wireless ability (although I here it’s rare for a new computer not to have this—true?) and not weigh a thousand pounds.  I like the size of my current computer (about 10.5” x 12.5” x 2”) and wouldn’t mind finding something with similar dimensions.  I can be flexible about the price because I firmly believe you get what you pay for, and I will be using this new computer every day for a long time.

Do you have any suggestions for brands or models I should check out?  Which stores have the best service for computer customers?  Any happy stories about recent computer purchases?  Or, on the flip side, are there any warnings you want to offer?  Advice you wish someone had shared with you before you wasted your money on a crappy machine?

I thank you in advance for your words of wisdom!  Have a beautiful day, dear readers.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Toddler Charm

My niece Lydia is possibly the most wonderful thing to ever happen to me.

I didn’t have much to do with her coming into my life. Her parents did all the work on that end of things, and they continue to do all the heavy lifting when it comes to taking care of her. My job, as I see it, is to have as much fun with her as possible. It seems a little unfair that I do no work and I am rewarded with big smiles, laughter, and endearing requests from Lydia to hold her, play with her, help her. I never say no to those requests.

Since I am her aunt, I suppose I am doing my job when I spend time with her. We make up games, play catch together, and tag-team it on the swings: I push, she swings. (Her parents watch us nervously.) Being with Lydia is magical; she casts her little toddler charm on me and I’m a goner. I feel so very blessed by her presence in my life. We get along so well, like we were meant to be together. Ever since Lydia joined our family almost three years ago, I have felt that she was always meant to be with us, like she’s always been with us, but we just didn’t know it until she was born.

Her mom, Amanda, likes to say that Lydia showed signs of being her dad’s daughter early in life. She’s always been opinionated, strong-willed, and independent. You just can’t force her to do something she doesn’t want to do. But I think it’s clear she’s also her mom’s daughter: Lydia is a kind, happy, generous person. Her smile feels like sunshine, and her voice sparkles like Lake Michigan in the morning. I am totally and completely smitten with this child. I couldn’t anticipate feeling this way about her before she was born. I knew I would love her, but my love for her humbles me. I feel small compared to this love.

Last weekend Lydia and her parents made the drive out to Chicago to visit me. It was Lydia’s first visit, although Amanda tells me that Lydia swears she remembers the last visit, the one where she was a bun in the oven. On Friday night, my door buzzer hollered, and I let my guests into the building. Then I bounced down the stairs to meet them. Lydia was ascending the stairs, slowly, one two-footed stair at a time: up left, up right, stop. Up left, up right, stop. She walked ahead of Amanda and Charlie, holding the banister, looking steady, and smiling a toothy grin at me as I came into view. My first thought was the same first thought I have every time I see her: She looks so grown-up! Followed by She’s so beautiful! This niece of mine is quite possibly the most gorgeous little creature I’ve ever seen, with her blonde (“lellow,” she says) curls, round cheeks, and blue eyes framed by long, dark lashes. But what got me was her smile, because it mirrored exactly the way I felt upon seeing her again. So much joy and excitement tucked into that little face! My heart was literally buoyed up by the sight of her, so happy to finally be here, ready for a weekend of trains and big city fun.

Truth be told, we didn’t do much in the way of planning for this trip. My family is not big on elaborate plans, and Lydia’s parents are especially fond of spontaneous plans. When all your plans involve a two-year-old, it’s best to stay flexible and keep things simple. So that’s what we did. On Friday night, after unwinding a bit at my place while Lydia ran across my living room ten thousand times, we went to Dixie Kitchen, one of my favorite Evanston restaurants, for a Cajun dinner. Food is a little tricky with Lydia and Amanda; between the two of them they are gluten-, corn-, and dairy-free. Charlie and I have iron stomachs—we can eat anything. Cajun food provided simple meat-and-vegetable options for our free-eaters and delicious meals for everyone. Before dinner, Lydia received a picture, crayons, and a toy crocodile. She proceeded to feed the crayons to her “dinosaur” and asked us to take down the tricycle which was suspended from the ceiling (campy restaurant décor at its finest). Although there was no tricycle-riding (alas), a fine night was had by all.

The next day, after a morning of shopping at the farmers’ market and Whole Foods, Daphna and Ian met us at my place for a simple lunch of stew and salad. I really wanted to have at least one home-cooked meal with my family while they were here, but coming up with a decent meal to feed us is nothing to sneeze at. I settled on a chickpea and rice stew seasoned with cumin and smoked paprika. This stew is a very nice riff on beans-n-greens. It’s the kind of recipe that belongs in every repertoire. I was inspired by a bag of fresh spinach, thriftiness, and these three fine recipes. The spices and chickpeas give it a faintly exotic edge, but it’s wonderfully homey and comforting at the same time. It’s also one of the first recipes to raise its hand when I ask for a main dish free of gluten, corn, and dairy, but at the same time, it will happily accept additions, such as cheese. I imagine sausage would be delicious here too—the spicy flavors would take kindly to a rich, meaty texture. Make no mistake though: this stew is very good without any extras.

The salad was a fruit salad. Its assembly reminded me of stone soup, where ingredients come from all over the place. At the farmers’ market, we found fresh blueberries, strawberries, and raspberries. Amanda had brought grapes, so we threw some of those in as well, along with a diced mango from my kitchen table. Lydia, my little mango monkey, kept asking for more mango from the fruit salad, so Amanda poked around with the serving spoon, retrieving one piece of mango at a time. Mango is just one of many things Lydia feels strongly about!

On Sunday morning, we met in the kitchen, this time for a homestyle breakfast prepared by Amanda. While she made French toast* and bacon, Lydia discovered my high heels and realized what great fun it would be to wear them. The problem, though, is that if you’ve recently learned how to walk, putting on a pair of heels is verrrrry tricky. Sometimes she sat down, put them on, and let me stand her up. Other times she’d sort of bend over so that she could brace herself with her hands, put the shoes on, and then push herself up to standing. Either way, she would end up on her feet and announce, “I’m wearing high heels!” Indeed! Then she would clomp around my apartment, as pleased as can be, making all sorts of racket. I only hope my downstairs neighbor will forgive me—I forgot to warn him there’d be a toddler in my apartment on Sunday morning! In between high heel sessions, there was plenty of time for tickling, Slinky, and pulling every item off the front of my refrigerator. I miss Lydia terribly now.

Sometimes I think about Lydia as a teenager, and it freaks me out. I’m not ready for her to be that grown-up. I think about her facing all sorts of scary things, like mean kids, peer pressure, sex, and drugs, and I wish I could just snuggle her against my hip and keep her there forever, safe and protected. It’s a great relief to me that even after not seeing her for six months, she is almost the same child I kissed good-bye in December. Now she’s shed her bulky diaper (hurray for potty-training!) and her gait has lost the slight waddle that newly bipedal toddlers show. She’s got a mouthful of teeth and a bigger vocabulary, including her favorite question, why? She understands so much now! But when I see her in a cluster of other kids, like when she was playing in the water-splurting thing at the Lincoln Park Zoo, I realize how very tiny she is and how we have so much more time to enjoy together before she’ll want to pretend she’s not related to us old fogies. Seeing her in my high heels, her baby feet dwarfed by those giant grown-up shoes, made me laugh again and again. Is there anything more symbolic of childhood than playing dress-up in your mom’s (or aunt’s) shoes? Is there anything more adorable than my Lydia wearing heels? I doubt it.

In her two-year-old way, Lydia reminds me once again that ours is a special bond. From her I discover what it means to be learning everything for the first time. From me she discovers what it means to be a woman with no kids and no husband, someone who can focus all of her attention on Lydia when they are together. I’m a sort of alternate reality to the family life that Lydia experiences every day: I’m family, but I’m not a mama. I own all sorts of cool grown-up toys, like high heels and swizzle sticks, but I’d rather play with Lydia when she’s around. I don’t wear a wedding ring, but I have a “boyfriend,” whatever THAT means. The whole thing is just very confusing when you’re tiny. I have a lot to teach my Lydia, but for now I think we’ll just take our time.

* For those of you who are curious, yes, Amanda did make dairy- and gluten-free French toast, which was pretty amazing. She found a gluten-free bread in the freezer section at Whole Foods. For the custard, she used eggs and Odwalla’s Mango Tango, a fruit smoothie thickened with banana pureé. I think the Mango Tango worked quite well in place of milk, and it’s awfully tasty on its own. I may have to replace the jug they left behind…

Lydia’s Stew (or Chickpea and Rice Stew)

Serves 4-6, depending on what else is on the menu

Lydia loves to slurp soup broth, so I thought a nice brothy stew would be perfect for lunch. She liked this broth, but she absolutely LOVED the basmati rice that Daphna cooked for us to eat with the stew. At the end of the meal, there may have been more rice on her shirt than in her belly, but no matter: lunch was a success!

A word about the greens: I like spinach best here, with the leaves thinly sliced and the stems finely chopped. But my brother found a handsome bunch of kale at the farmers’ market, so that’s what we used last weekend. He prepped the kale by removing the stems and tearing the leaves into bite-sized pieces. Really, I think most hearty greens will work here—just choose one you like and go with that.

Several cups of basmati rice

4 cups vegetable stock

2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil

2 medium onions, chopped

2 tsp. smoked paprika

2 tsp. cumin seeds

A shake or two of red chile pepper flakes (I left these out for Lydia’s sake, but I’d definitely keep them in when cooking for adult palates)

4 cloves of garlic, chopped

4 cups or more of chopped or bite-sized greens (see headnote)

2 15-oz. cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed

Salt and pepper to taste

Cheese, such as feta, for serving

Hot sauce, for serving (this one’s for Charlie)

1) Get the rice going: prepare it according to the package’s instructions.

2) While the rice cooks, prepare the stew. Heat the stock over low heat. Pour the olive oil into a separate soup pot and heat over medium-low heat. Add the onions and sauté for several minutes until softened. Add the paprika, cumin, red chile pepper flakes, and garlic, and cook for another minute.

3) Add the greens to the onion sauté and let them cook for 30-60 seconds, stirring frequently, to wilt them into the pot. Pour the warm stock over the greens and bring everything to a boil. Turn down the heat and let the stew simmer, covered, for about 10 minutes.

4) Add the chickpeas, bring the stew to a bubble, cover, and simmer for another 10 minutes. The goal here is to make the chickpeas nice and tender, so taste one and if it isn’t soft and silky, simmer for a few more minutes. Repeat until the chickpeas are perfect. Taste the stew and adjust the seasonings with salt and/or pepper.

5) Scoop the rice into bowls and top with the stew. Serve alongside any additions, such as cheese or hot sauce.