Sunday, August 30, 2009

Three Little Letters

I hardly know what to say right now, so I’m going to take the direct approach: from this day forth, you can call me doctor.

Last week, I wrote to you about cooking for comfort, and it was an entirely appropriate topic, for I was in need of comfort.  I felt a little like I was in the eye of a storm, surrounded by an eerie calm blanketing the sea as I sat in my little boat, heart pounding so hard it could have sprung right out of my chest.  I needed comfort to soothe my nerves and quiet my mind, which had been spinning a little out of control.

So I cooked, and I took deep breaths, and I did yoga and meditated to find the calm center within my mind.  These things worked—for one thing, I slept better—and then last Tuesday, I stood up in front of my thesis committee, talked science with them for two hours, and at the end, they signed a piece of paper and whoosh, I became a PhD.

The whole thing feels surreal to me.  I’ve fought so hard to get here.  There’s a common misconception among many people that a PhD implies you’re like, super ridiculously smart.  That’s not true.  Although most PhDs are very smart, my PhD is more like a set of battle scars.  I went to war with myself, my experiments, my data, my beliefs, sometimes my advisor, and occasionally even Matt, who absolutely refused to give up on me and my PhD.  (That man is a believer.)  There were so many days, weeks, months, maybe even years when I wanted to quit.  But I didn’t.  I don’t even know why I didn’t quit.  I certainly had moments when I gave up.  But I never quit.  I think it was just sheer stubbornness.  I’m hardwired for stubbornness; you should see my dad.  It’s a dominant trait in my family; we’re all like mules or cats.  We work hard, but heaven help the soul who tries to get us to do something we don’t want to do.  It’s a very unpleasant job, I can assure you.

My committee meeting was actually rather fun.  An epiphany struck me the night before the meeting, and I realized that the meeting itself would be a celebration of sorts: a celebration of science, by scientists.  It would be the birth of a new scientist: me.  It would be a chance to hole up for a few hours, the data laid out in front of us like so many building blocks.  We would discuss and argue, speculate and dream, until we ran out of time, food, or ideas.  It wouldn’t be me against my committee; it would be me WITH my committee.  Although they would be “examining” me, the conversation would be a team effort.

And so it was.

I don’t know what sparked this epiphany.  Maybe I just needed something to calm me down, and so I found it.  It’s hard to perform intellectual feats like defending one’s PhD thesis when nerves have made it impossible to think anything but quick little panicky one-liners.  Or maybe I realized it while I was making the treats for my meeting, the soothing rhythm of my whisk pushing flour in circles as it pushed confidence-boosting thoughts into my head.

Issues of mental clarity aside, the food was delicious.  This summer, I had pursed my lips and pondered the menu for my committee meeting for a long time.  At first I was going to make a full meal, based around my favorite lentil salad—tangy with lemon and rich with avocado.  But then I realized it was an afternoon meeting and decided a snack menu would nice.  I knew it had to have cookies, and with something as important as a PhD on the line, I knew I couldn’t mess around.  I went with the heaviest hitter I’ve got, these whole-grain behemoths, sturdy, sweet, and more convincing than anything I could possibly say.  I also wanted something savory to serve alongside my cookies.  Sweet and savory: that way, I’d cover the two basic food groups.

Do you remember last week how I told you about Ruth Reichl and her morning recipe sifting?  That got me thinking about families and the recipe collections they inspire.  I don’t know which came first—a remembered recipe or the sifting—but after flipping through my recipes, I found myself looking down at my sister-in-law’s recipe for fresh tomato salsa, and suddenly I knew exactly what I’d be serving alongside my cookies to my thesis committee.

I’d only had this tomato salsa once before, but I remember scooping a garden’s worth of tomatoes into my mouth and adoring every bite of it.  It’s fairly obvious what immediately appeals to me about this salsa: it’s sweet.  Not from added sugar, mind you, but because tomatoes this time of year, in their juicy, fleshy glory, are sweet.  Amanda’s salsa is the essence of tomatoes, rough-chopped and stirred gently together with a handful of tomatillos and a smattering of onion and green pepper.  It is delectably mild, with nary a hot chile pepper in sight, which makes the tomato flavor that much more front and center.  But it’s not just mild and unspicy—it’s surprisingly complex with the subtle flavors of its fresh vegetable components, sweet and earthy and tangy and deeply, deeply refreshing.  It was years ago that I first ate this salsa, but that memory tucked itself deep in my belly, incubating until it was time to make its appearance in my own kitchen.

The morning of my committee meeting, I stood at my kitchen counter, chopping five gorgeous heirloom tomatoes, admiring the rainbow-colored beads they became in my white plastic bowl.  Tomato juice seeped off my counter and onto the front of my shirt, but my knife and I paid it no mind.  Following the tomatoes were tomatillos, tart and green, then jewel-toned green pepper, and finally some sweet yellow onion.  The whole thing was stirred together with some apple cider vinegar and sprinkles of sea salt, and then I covered the bowl in foil and tucked it in my bag for safekeeping before schlepping it to campus.

Actually, that’s not true.  I ate a few spoonfuls with my lunch at home that day—you know, just enough to test for quality control—and it was as good as I remembered.  Fresh tomato salsa, my favorite chocolate chip cookies, and a PhD: I had such a great week.

I’ll see you on the other side of grad school, friends.  Have a wonderful week filled with fresh tomatoes and delicious late-summer sunshine.  As always, thanks for spending some time with me here.

Amanda’s Fresh Tomato Salsa

Makes a vat—enough for a party!

4-5 medium tomatoes, stems removed and chopped into small chunks

6 tomatillos, wrappers removed and sliced or diced as you like

1/2 Walla-walla or yellow onion (go for a sweet onion here), diced

1 small green pepper or half of a larger one, diced

1-2 tbsp. apple cider vinegar or to taste

1-2 tsp. sea salt or to taste

1)  Mix all the vegetables together in a large bowl, preferably not a metal one so that acids don’t react with the metal.

2)  Add the lesser amounts of vinegar and salt; taste.  Decide if the salsa needs more vinegar and/or salt and adjust the seasonings to taste.  Serve with foods that beg to be doctored up with a spoonful of salsa.

* Leftovers make for a great tomato soup.  Here’s how I did it: fry up an onion or two in olive oil and add a clove or two of garlic at the end.  Dump in your leftover salsa and a cup or two of water.  Bring to a simmer and then add a can of beans, such as black beans or chickpeas, and simmer for another ten minutes or so.  Serve with corn chips and some cheese.  Yum.

** A special thank-you to Amanda for letting me share her salsa recipe here.  She’s such a good cook.  One of these times when I’m visiting I might just stay forever and let her feed me.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Sad to Report

I go to sleep alone, and wake up alone.  I take walks.  I work until I’m tired.  I watch the wind play with the trash that’s been under the snow all winter.  Everything seems simple until you think about it.  Why is love intensified by absence?

It’s ironic, really.  All my pleasures are homey ones: armchair splendor, the sedate excitements of domesticity.  All I ask for are humble delights.  A mystery novel in bed, the smell of Clare’s long red-gold hair damp from washing, a postcard from a friend on vacation, cream dispersing into coffee, the softness of the skin under Clare’s breasts, the symmetry of grocery bags sitting on the kitchen counter waiting to be unpacked….And Clare, always Clare.”

* * *

Last week, in between organizing fly stocks and making Powerpoint slides, I found myself fantasizing about seeing The Time Traveler’s Wife.  I’d watch the trailer over and over again, read reviews, check movie times.  I was feeling giddy with impatience and ready to be swept up in the romance.  The state of my own romance was nudging me toward seeing the movie sooner rather than later.  I’ve been missing Matt slightly more than is comfortable, and with still more than a month to go until we have plans to see each other again, I felt I ought to treat myself to romance, movie-style.

I made plans with myself to see the movie on Sunday and then changed my mind, deciding on Friday afternoon to see it later that night.  Sometimes Fridays can be so depressing!  Often I feel too worn out from the week to celebrate Fridays.  Other times I feel sad when I have no special plans for that evening—no Matt to see, no plans with friends, not even something exciting to cook for dinner.  On that particular Friday, I needed something to make me feel a little perkier, so I scooted over to the movie theater, bought a ticket, went home, ate dinner, and scooted back to the theater just in time to catch the previews.

[Here’s where I issue my disclaimer: I’m about to spoil The Time Traveler’s Wife for you.  If you wish not to be spoiled, please stop reading, walk to your nearest bookstore, buy the book, read the entire thing, and then return to this post.  Seeing the movie before reading this post is optional.]

I wanted to love this movie.  I really did.  I adore the book and have read it many times.  Sometimes I even just read the parts that are especially sexy or sad, just to make myself feel good.  And I love that the story is set in Chicago, the jewel of the Midwest.  The movie, I’m sad to report, was terrible.  It felt so flat to me, lacking the magic and romance of the novel.  I was deeply disappointed.

The main characters, Clare and Henry, are strangely twisted in the movie version.  I had a hard time seeing them as two people deeply in love or even two people who like each other.  The physical affection between them felt forced and unnatural, like two awkward actors struggling through their sex scenes.  I think, however, that the real problem is that the script never ignited the passion between Clare and Henry.  Without the inner monologues that guide the novel along, the movie doesn’t capture the emotional intensity that makes this a compelling story.  There is little joy in their love.

It was more disturbing to me, though, that movie-version Clare is NOT the same character as novel-version Clare.  Whereas the latter is self-possessed, thoughtful, seductive, and entirely likeable, the former is an annoying martyr who failed to gain my sympathies.  Novel-version Clare copes well with Henry’s absences.  Her coping feels real to me.  By that, I mean I do the same things when I’m feeling sad about missing Matt.  For example, Clare tells us,

This is a secret: sometimes I am glad when Henry is gone.  Sometimes I enjoy being alone.  Sometimes I walk through the house late at night and I shiver with the pleasure of not talking, not touching, just walking, or sitting, or taking a bath….Sometimes I get a babysitter and I go to the movies or I ride my bicycle after dark along the bike path by Montrose beach with no lights; it’s like flying. 

“Sometimes I am glad when Henry’s gone, but I’m always glad when he comes back.”

Like me, Clare is a bit of a solitary creature, which is one of the reasons that she’s able to be happy in her relationship, even with Henry’s frequent absences.  The movie missed this aspect of her personality.  Instead, it turned Clare into a suffering, nagging harpy of a wife who resents her husband for his disappearances and yet doesn’t seem to connect with him on a deeper level.  Is Henry her husband or her property?

Movie-version Henry is also problematic.  Unlike novel-version Henry, he finds little joy or pleasure in life.  He’s very sad or worried all the time.  Part of conjuring up the magic of the novel is convincing us that Henry and Clare find happiness in the moments that they do spend together.  I wish the movie had spent more time developing the love that Henry and Clare come to feel for each other.  Without that, the whole story falls apart.

The movie is not without its redeeming qualities.  Several of the supporting characters are very well-written and acted, including Henry’s dad and Gomez (and I love Ron Livingston, who plays Gomez).  The sets are gorgeous and entirely appropriate, from Chicago (of course!) to Clare’s family home in Michigan.  The movie was more enjoyable after Alba, Clare and Henry’s daughter, is born.  There is a heartwarming montage during which we see Alba grow from baby to five-year-old; I wish a similar strategy had been used to show us how Clare and Henry fall in love.  The script does follow the novel fairly closely, but ironically, when it strayed from the novel, I liked it more!  I’m able to forgive them for straying if it made for a better movie.  I didn’t even really mind that they changed the ending because by that point, the movie had already failed—authenticity was not going to save it from itself.  (And to be fair, the movie ending is only slightly different from the novel.)

I still cried at the movie, but I blame myself for being too familiar with the story and knowing what tragedy looms ahead for Henry and Clare.  When I read the book, I sob buckets.  A single tissue sufficed for the movie.  When it finally ended, I shot out of there like a bullet—no need to linger for the credits of a crappy movie.

While I’m not going to demand my money back, I might recommend that you save yours and rent the video if you’d like to see the movie.  Whatever you do, READ THE BOOK FIRST.  If you don’t like the book, don’t bother seeing the movie.  Go see Julie & Julia instead, which was wonderful and totally worth the $8.50 I spent to see it in the theater last week.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Kitchen Dreams and Earthly Meditations

I’ve been steeping myself in Ruth Reichl’s books this month, reading all about her California adventures in Comfort Me with Apples and her tenure as The New York Times’ restaurant critic in Garlic and Sapphires.

If there is one thing that I’m certain about when it comes to food, it’s that I have no desire to cook professionally.  The frantic pace of restaurant cooking clashes perfectly with my slow, contemplative cooking style.  In addition, I think my cooking boss would be none too pleased with my tendency to deviate from recipes.  I’m destined to remain tablebound in restaurants, and I think we are all happier for it.

I will admit to having a newfound respect for the restaurant business after seeing it through Ruth Reichl’s eyes.  It’s an enormous task they are trying to accomplish: to provide a crowd’s worth of nourishment, pleasure, and entertainment, all while cranking enough food out of the kitchen to feed everyone on the premises.  I like eating out every once in a while, but restaurants make me very grateful for the sanctuary that is my own kitchen.

It’s telling that my favorite parts in Ruth’s books are the parts where she cooks at home.  She often cooks for comfort, and I can’t blame her.  When the world is falling to pieces around you, there are fewer things more soothing than chopping, stirring, sniffing, creaming, mixing, and tasting.  Whether comfort is found on the stovetop or in the oven, on a counter or a sturdy table, these small pleasures cannot be peddled by a restaurant.  Sometimes the luxury of having someone else cook my dinner is exactly what I need, but sooner or later, I always return to the kitchen, ready to feel the knife in my hand and the onion at my fingertips.

Even for a restaurant critic, and especially for one who likes to cook, eating dinner away from home, night after night, can lose its charm.  But the kitchen courts our affection in uncanny ways.  In Garlic and Sapphires, Ruth writes,

That fall, worried about Carol and wondering about my work, I spent weeks standing at the counter, chopping onions, peeling apples, and rolling dough.  I made complicated soups and stews, and I began baking bread every day, as I had done when Michael and I first lived together.

In the end I came to realize that a restaurant critic’s job is more about eating than writing, and every time I cancelled a reservation I grew more seriously behind.  I was having a secret affair with cooking, and I knew it could not continue.  But every morning, after walking Nicky to school, I’d go home and sit in the kitchen, sifting through my recipes.  A jumble of handwritten pages, they were gathered into an ancient, torn manila folder filled with memories.  Tomorrow, I’d think, tomorrow I’ll go out to eat, tomorrow I’ll go back to the restaurants.  And then I’d turn over another page and a long-gone meal would come tumbling out, more evocative than any photograph could ever be.”

Isn’t that great?  “A secret affair with cooking.”  Just the thought of it makes me happy.  But the part I loved most was the luxury (stolen though it may have been) of sitting down each morning and picking out one delectable recipe to make, a way of summoning the past to bring comfort to the present.  It’s an overwhelming, frantic world in which we live; the kitchen table is the perfect place in which to seek some serenity.  Lazily, dreamily paging through cookbooks and recipe clippings is an earthly meditation, an antidote to the harried, forward-pushing world outside the kitchen.  Sitting at our tables, looking at recipes, we can let the world carry on without us for a while.

When we are done dreaming and the groceries now sit on the counter, waiting to be turned into a meal, we can find comfort in doing.  I have found that meditation at the edge of the knife makes everything seem better,” writes Ruth in Garlic and Sapphires.  Indeed, is there a task as straightforward and satisfying as chopping?  Is there any more purposeful feeling than the weight of a chef’s knife in your hand, hovering over a green pepper, the blade just seconds away from slicing cleanly through the vegetal curves?  On the days when I feel lost and useless, a recipe is my map and a knife my compass.  On those days I am profoundly grateful for my kitchen, even the mess that remains to be cleaned up after the cooking and the eating have ended.

Alone in the kitchen, there is no need to impress.  But to be honest, I don’t invite people into my kitchen whom I need to impress.  It’s like a workshop, a space I share with my favorite people, the ones who have decided to hang around me, despite my warts and wrinkles.  I love having company when I cook, but I’m not deterred if I’m chopping without an audience.  The solitude makes it easier to justify a simpler recipe, one that sounds pedestrian and could disappoint in its ordinariness.  The suspense of the outcome is rather enticing!  All of this is a very long-winded way of saying that I made a fantastic rice and bean salad that I wanted to share with you today.  Finding this recipe has, in retrospect, justified my search for a rice and bean salad recipe worth keeping.  This class of salads can be tricky.  Sometimes the rice becomes hard upon refrigeration, sometimes the beans get mushy, sometimes the whole salad tastes muddy and heavy with too many ingredients.  I wanted my salad to taste light and fresh while still fulfilling its promise to appease my hunger.

Today’s salad has a few tricks up its sleeve that keep it delightfully refreshing.  For one, it calls for Wehani brown rice or basmati brown rice.  I used the latter because I couldn’t find Wehani rice at Whole Foods.  Basmati brown rice lends a very nice texture to this salad: soft and slightly chewy without being hard or mushy.  The dressing, a light and tangy vinaigrette with some Southwestern spice in the form of cumin and oregano, is simple without being boring, and it really lets the rice and beans shine.  Pinto beans make for a great salad bean, and the vegetables, scallions and a bell pepper, taste bright and clean.

I like this salad on its own, but it also makes a nice backdrop for other ingredients.  It’s particularly delicious served over a bed of lettuce and topped with a chopped tomato and some cubes of sharp cheddar.  I’m also thinking about trying it with some slow-roasted tomatoes in lieu of the bell pepper; my friend Ammie hates bell peppers, but I think she’d like this salad without that damn pepper.

Rice and bean salads may not be cutting-edge restaurant cuisine, but they are the stuff of which my kitchen dreams are made.  Keep dreaming, friends, one recipe at a time.

Southwestern Brown Rice and Pinto Bean Salad

Adapted from EatingWell, April/May 2005

Makes 6 or more servings

This recipe makes a MOUNTAIN of food, so be forewarned that if you aren’t making this for a crowd, you’ll be eating the leftovers for several days, which is not at all a bad thing.  I have found that the leftovers are really good for about two days—the rice stays chewy and tender—but after that, they need a little help.  If you heat up the salad, it helps to revive the rice and restore its nice texture.  A microwave is fine here.  On a stovetop, you can use a little saucepan, adding a few dribbles of water to steam the rice just a touch.  It’s almost as easy as heating up leftover soup!  The flavors, fortunately, seem to hold up well for at least 4 days after making the salad.  But you can always add a sprinkle of salt or a drizzle of vinegar to perk up the leftovers.  Cheese helps too.

1 cup Wehani brown rice or basmati brown rice (I used basmati)

2-2 1/2 cups water (2 1/2 for Wehani, 2 for basmati)

2 tsp. cumin seeds or 1 tsp. ground cumin (I used cumin seeds)

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 cup sherry or red wine vinegar (I used red wine vinegar)

1/2-1 tsp. sugar, especially if you are using red wine vinegar

1 tsp. dried oregano

1 large clove garlic, crushed and peeled

1/4-1/2 tsp. salt (I used 1/4 tsp. but I find myself adding salt to each serving, so I’m going to use 1/2 tsp. the next time I make this.)

1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper (I never measure pepper.  I would interpret this instruction as “Use lots of black pepper.”)

2 15-oz. cans pinto beans, drained and rinsed

6 scallions, trimmed and sliced

1 medium bell pepper, any color (I used an ordinary green pepper), chopped

1)  Combine the rice and water in a large saucepan and bring to a boil.  Reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook until all the water is absorbed, 40-45 minutes.  Remove from heat and let rest (still covered) for 10 minutes.  Spread the rice out on a large rimmed baking sheet and let it cool to room temperature, about 15 minutes.

2)  While the rice is going, prep the dressing.  Toast the cumin in a skillet over medium-high heat or in a 350 degree F oven for 1-2 minutes until fragrant and lightly toasted.  Transfer to a food processor and let cool for several minutes.  Add the oil, vinegar, sugar if using, oregano, garlic, salt, and plenty of pepper.  Process until the mixture is smooth and the garlic is finely chopped.

3)  Place the rice, beans, scallions, and bell pepper in a large bowl.  Toss together gently.  Pour the dressing over the salad and toss again to coat everything lightly.  Serve immediately or refrigerate in a tightly sealed container.  This salad tastes best at room temperature or warm (see headnote).

Monday, August 17, 2009

Midnight Roasting

151 pages later, I have emerged from my thesis-writing cocoon!  It feels great!  Except that in about a week, I’ll have to go back inside for the final revisions as prescribed by my helpful thesis committee.  But after that, I will emerge a butterfly with three beautiful letters after her name: P H D.  I’m so excited I could sing!  La la la la la PHD!

I hope you aren’t tired of this PhD business, dear reader, because it’s going to continue for the next few weeks.  After six years of labor dedicated to my craft, I think I’m entitled to bask in the pride that somehow pulled me toward it even during my darkest days of graduate school.  I’ve been (secretly) dreaming of this time for many moons, but the waking reality is even better than my secret dreams.  I just feel so accomplished, anticipating the completion of my degree.  I feel victorious.

Another thing that made me feel victorious recently was an excellent open-faced sandwich that seemed to invent itself for the sole purpose of comforting me in the final weeks of thesis writing.  I love sandwiches, especially the kind that can stand alone as a vegetarian entree.  Sandwiches of this type really need some sort of protein to work, and I like a little something more than a piece of cheese.  Or even better, a little something in addition to a piece of cheese.  I want good bread and cheese and something to tie the whole thing together into a neat little package called dinner.

Enter the humble white bean.  It’s such an easy answer: open a can, drain the beans, dump them in a bowl, and mash them with some salt and pepper.  Comfortingly bland and yet utterly fortifying, white beans are so good in sandwiches, especially as a creamy mattress for the real superstars of this open-faced sandwich: slow-roasted tomatoes, courtesy of summer and A Homemade Life.

I’ve fallen pretty hard for the slow-roasted tomato.  It’s what sun-dried tomatoes wish they could be but never quite achieve: a silky, sweet-tart pouch of tomato essence that practically melts into a puddle of summer on your tongue.  It’s startling that with a little heat and time, pedestrian Roma tomatoes can be transformed into something so sublime.  And right now, at least in my corner of the globe, Romas are cheapReally cheap—like 15 or 20 of them for 3 bucks at the farmers’ market.  Unbelievable.  I keep scooping them up, deliciously thrilled at the prospect of another week of slow-roasted tomatoes.

By day, I’ve been roasting my brain on data and figures and science prose.  But by night, I fire up the oven for the slow steady midnight roasting of my cache of tomatoes.  It takes just a few minutes to prep the tomatoes, especially if you’re lazy like me and do your prep in the pan with the tomatoes.  It’s worth the effort to roast a couple pounds of tomatoes at a time because it’s really easy to plow through four of them in one sitting.  Seriously: I top each sandwich with four tomato halves, right down the middle like giant red buttons, and polish off two sandwiches without a hiccup.  This, my friends, is home-cooking at its best.  Eat your sandwiches accompanied by a vegetable or two or maybe a chilled soup and you’ve got a snappy late-summer dinner that will leave you just enough room for dessert.

Molly’s Slow-Roasted Tomatoes with Coriander

Adapted from A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg

Have I mentioned lately how much I love Molly’s book?  I’ve been working my way through the recipes, following them in my devil-may-care, I’ll-just-change-this-and-that-because-no-one-is-here-to-stop-me way.  One of the nice things about most of Molly’s recipes, published in the book or on Orangette, is that they are really user-friendly for a tinkerer like me.  I feel that’s a strong indicator of a good, solid recipe and one of the reasons I cook so much from her recipes.

For these slow-roasted tomatoes, the basic recipe is pretty easy and loose, but I make things even easier on myself by doing away with an extra bowl and instead prepping the tomatoes on a cutting board and then inside the pan where they’ll roast for a few hours.  I also use a little more salt and coriander than Molly because I like the seasonings a little bit stronger.

Cooking spray

Roma (plum) tomatoes (make lots!)

Extra-virgin olive oil

Salt (I’ve used sea salt and table salt with good results here)

Ground coriander (oh, delight!)

1)  Preheat the oven for 250 degrees F.  Spray a baking dish or rimmed baking sheet with cooking spray and set aside.

2)  Prep the tomatoes: wash them, chop them in half lengthwise, and use a little V-shaped cut to snip away the stem on each half.  Line them up inside the prepped dish or sheet, cut side up.

3)  Drizzle the tomato halves lightly with olive oil.  You don’t need to coat them in oil, just use a bit on each one to give it a little flavor and richness.  Sprinkle them with salt and ground coriander to taste, just a bit on each one.

4)  Slide the tomatoes into the oven and roast for about 3 hours, at which point the tomatoes will have shrivelled into little crinkled pouches of concentrated tomato goodness.  Remove them from the oven and allow them to cool to room temperature, or just cool overnight.  Store roasted tomatoes in a tightly sealed container in the fridge.

Open-Faced White Bean, Cheese, and Slow-Roasted Tomato Sandwiches

Serves 2-3

My favorite bread for these sandwiches is a pre-sliced loaf of French bread made by Breadsmith, which I store in the freezer for safe-keeping while I work my way through the loaf.  The flavor seems just right for these sandwiches, a sort of cross between pizza and grilled cheese sandwiches.

One more note: if I’m making this recipe to feed just me, I make two sandwiches, but you’ll have enough of the bean mixture to make sandwiches for 2-3 eaters.  Store leftover bean mixture in the fridge.

4-6 slices of bread, such as the French sandwich bread made by Breadsmith

A single garlic clove, peeled and sliced in half

Extra-virgin olive oil

1 14.5-oz. can white beans, such as Great Northern beans



A few shredded handfuls of a favorite cheese, such as Organic Valley’s Wisconsin Raw Milk Cheese Jack Style

16-24 roasted tomato halves (4 for each slice of bread), see recipe above

1)  Lightly toast the bread in your favorite toasting apparatus.  After toasting, rub it with the garlic clove and drizzle a bit of olive oil on top.

2)  While the bread is toasting, prep the beans.  Drain and rinse the canned beans, then dump them into a shallow bowl, like a large cereal bowl.  Use a fork to mash them, then season them to taste with salt and pepper.

3)  Spread a few tablespoons of the bean mixture on each slice of bread.  Top with cheese.  Place four roasted tomatoes, cut side down, on each slice of bread.  I like to make a line with them, as though the tomatoes were very large buttons on a shirt that happens to be shaped like a piece of bread.  Sprinkle each sandwich with salt and pepper to taste.

4)  Turn on your broiler.  Cook the sandwiches under the broiler for 1-2 minutes until the cheese is melted and the sandwiches are nicely toasted and maybe a little bit browned.  Serve immediately.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Keep Moving

Folks, it’s almost time to get this thesis show on the road.  Tomorrow my PhD thesis heads out the door and into the hands of my committee members.

Tomorrow will be a good day because, at least for a little while, I’ll be able to get rid of this thing that’s become like an annoying houseguest—tolerable yet irritating.  It’s true that on the whole, writing my thesis hasn’t been too bad.  I have loved being able to work at home, not packing a lunch every day, and avoiding my commute a few days a week.  I have had moments in which understanding bloomed right before my eyes, and I was actually able to see data and entire projects as I’d never quite seen them before.  THAT was very cool.  The experience has given me some confidence that I’m going to do just fine as a postdoc, provided I find a way to let my brain focus without dissolving into a million scattered thoughts.  The focus of thesis writing has been at times exhilarating and exhausting.  But now I just want to be done.

It’s hard to explain how mentally draining it is to be committed to something as long and intense as a doctoral graduate program.  I imagine it’s in the same category as marriage or children, although to be fair, since I have not made either of those commitments, I can’t really say.  Regardless, it is a big, B-I-G commitment.  Bigger than I could have possibly imagined at age 21, when I started graduate school.  I feel like I’ve been on an extended road trip for the past six years.  For one thing, my butt is really sore from so many hours spent sitting at my desk.  My back hurts, too.  Like a lot of road trips, this one has been very interesting.  I have learned many obscure facts, like the fact that flies have brains.  (Did you know that?)  They also have seven photopigments that function in three different pairs of “eyes” if you will—their giant compound eyes (the ones you can see with your own eyes) as well as two “hidden” eyes, an eyelet and a group of cells called ocelli.  And believe it or not, the fact that I know these things makes me irresistible to a certain someone.  Yes, I am one hot nerd.

This road trip called grad school has been a lot of fun, too.  I’ve done a lot of cool experiments, found some interesting results, and worked with a great bunch of people.  I’ve learned that science is more fun when you can share it with someone and that I really like working as part of a team.  For the first couple of years, I worked really hard and managed to get some stuff done, and that was good.

When the trip was fresh and exciting, driving was a challenge, but I was eager to prove I could handle it.  Half the time the map was wrong, and sometimes I ran out of gas, but I could always just nibble on a snack until I figured out my next route.  My station wagon turned out to be a piece of junk that liked to run itself off the road.  I got stuck in ditches and telephone poles all the time and had to call for help.  It was usually the same man on the other end of the line, an American-born Indian who was often very helpful but occasionally gave me driving advice that was more appropriate for someone with a Ferrari, not a station wagon.  Nevertheless, I learned a lot from that man.  

Around year five or so, my accelerator broke, so I was stuck in neutral until the Journal of Neuroscience gave me a new accelerator and a first-author publication.  During year six, the engine fell out of my car and I ran out of snacks.  I abandoned the car on the side of the road and started walking home.  Occasionally I stuck out my thumb and tried to hitchhike, but whenever I did that, they always dropped me off in the worst places in town, and I ran like hell to get away.  So I quickly learned to stop asking for help from other vehicles, and I just kept walking.

I’ve been walking for a long time now.  I’m very, very tired.  I need to get home.  I need to rest.  On Tuesday, I will pass a hopeful sign that says, “Just three more weeks until you are free.”  I am desperate to see that sign.  Until then, I will keep moving forward, one slow step after another, for as long as I can.  I am almost done.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Of Time and Love

One of my very favorite books is The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger.  Set in Chicago, my adopted city, this love story is an old-fashioned romance intertwined with a most bizarre set of circumstances: our hero Henry is an unwilling time traveler, while his wife, our heroine Clare, waits for his return.

It’s a classic theme in romantic tales, but in The Time Traveler’s Wife, the plot feels fresh, exciting, almost spellbinding.  Earlier this year, I reread it again and felt Matt’s absence so deeply that it made me ache.  I have come to believe that a long-distance romance is probably the closest real-life example to Henry and Clare.  It is an exaggeration, of course—Matt only changes time zones when he travels—but I feel Clare’s sense of waiting and her joy when she is reunited with Henry.  There is nothing like separation to heighten the pleasure of being together.

Like Clare, sometimes rather than think about how much I miss Matt, I just make myself really, really busy.  I’m in one of those modes right now, although with my thesis deadline looming large, being busy is hardly optional.  Matt and I are in a strange spot.  Normally we’d be making plans to see each other this month or thereabouts, since we haven’t been together since California in May, but due to a clash of schedules and demands, we won’t see each other again until October.  I’m getting a little choked up right now, just seeing that in print.  I can only imagine how Clare must have felt in the years—literally, years—that she spends waiting for Henry at different times in her life.  A couple of months is hardly something to get all sniffly over!

And yet, I do get sniffly over it.  Why do I continue to see Matt, knowing that he needs more space to roam than a herd of buffalo?  Knowing that I have to be as willing to let him go as I am to hold him?  I see him because I love him.  And I love him because he understands me better than any other person I’ve ever known.  He wants to understand me.  Despite the distance between us, I feel closer to him than anyone else, even though I have not touched him in over two months.

In The Time Traveler’s Wife, time loops over itself and Henry begins sharing his adulthood with Clare the Adult and Clare the Child.  Clare’s past becomes Henry’s present.  In this way, the joining of Henry and Clare’s lives feels fatalistic.  I don’t know how it would feel to love someone under those circumstances.  I don’t believe I’ve ever “fallen in love.”  I believe I choose to love.  Or maybe I just give love a chance and wait to see what happens.  With Matt, it was like tiptoeing into love.  Every day I felt my heart nudge me forward, and rather than scurrying backward, I took a step.  Is it less romantic to choose love than it is to feel as though time and fate have collaborated to bring you together with your soul mate?  I don’t know.  All I know is that The Time Traveler’s Wife makes me cry.  Then it makes me count my lucky stars that Matt and I ever met each other in the first place.

* * *

Shortly after I reread The Time Traveler’s Wife for the nth time, I discovered a movie version is coming out!  I scratched my head in confusion, unable to decide how I felt about this.  In the book, I love the narratives by Henry and Clare.  Their voices set the mood and bring the story to life.  For a person like me, who tends to see the world not through my eyes but rather through my heart, this book is just perfect.  With no visual images to distract me, I could lose myself in the tide of emotion that moves the plot forward.  How will a movie capture that mood and that sense of wonder, without losing itself in cheesy special effects, sappy music, or melodramatic acting?

One of the things I like best about the book is that it is an adult love story.  Sex is deeply intertwined in the plot.  It is also a means through which Henry and Clare express their longing, their desire, their love.  I don’t want the movie to tone down the heat of the story; I want it to remain true to the sensuality and intent of the written story.

In addition, this romance is a sad story.  Its ending is, at best, bittersweet, but it is also lovely and beautiful.  It feels right to me.  I’m especially nervous that a movie version will change the ending to make it happier.  I want to see the book’s sadness and despair brought to life.  Sometimes love is at its best when it is painful.

But despite all this, I have to see this movie.  I feel compelled to see how The Time Traveler’s Wife will translate to the big screen.  The movie opens August 14, 2009.  Would anyone like to join me?  Leave me a comment here or send me an e-mail.  I’ll bring the tissues, and maybe we can sneak some cookies into the theater!

Monday, August 3, 2009

In Praise of Apple

Every Saturday morning, my friend Daphna and I meet at the farmers’ market and cruise around, picking out whatever looks or tastes especially good.  Every so often, Daphna will say, wistfully, “I can’t wait until they have apples here.”  The berries and peaches rolling into town right now are just no match for her affection for the humble, agreeable apple.

I might be a little less patient than D, because I’m okay with taking an apple or two home with me from the grocery store.  I won’t dispute the claim that the farmers’ market has better apples, or unique apples, or even her favorite kind of apples, but grocery store apples ain’t half bad!  And one advantage they have over the farmers’ market apples is that if you have an apple craving, you don’t have to wait until Saturday morning to get your fix.  Whole Foods is open seven days a week!

But what I really love about apples is that they don’t force you to wait until they are ripe to eat them.  Apples seem like they are always ready for their moment in the spotlight, as long as you don’t bruise them or let them spoil.  This ready-to-rumble attitude is in stark contrast to the banana, the peach, the nectarine, the plum, and the queen of waiting, the pear.  While that diva pear is slowly, gently softening into ripe, juicy readiness, the apple is practically bouncing up and down, shouting, “Pick me!  Pick me!”  And so, impatient creature that I am, I do.

I have found that apples can stand in quite nicely when pear isn’t an option.  This salad, for example, in its original form, called for pears, but I think it’s absolutely delicious with two crisp apples instead.  This muffin recipe also called for pears, but I love the all-American taste of an apple muffin—for me, it tastes like fall in the Midwest, even if the original recipe came from a New York Times article written by that wonderful Brit Nigella Lawson.  It’s no surprise, then, that when I was reading A Homemade Life (again!) and I got a craving for the Fennel Salad with Asian Pear and Parmesan, my first thought was, Oh, rats!  I don’t have a ripe pear!  My second thought was, To Whole Foods!  For fennel, Parmesan, and APPLE!

Matt may scold me about my inability to follow other people’s recipes with the same diligence I follow molecular biology protocols, but seriously, apple is so good in this salad.  Wow.  I really like it.  I like it so much that I’ve made a one-person serving of that salad three times in seven days.  If that’s not praise, then I don’t know what is.  Now I’m dreaming of making an apple-fennel soup, with plenty of onions and maybe a touch of cream.  Or maybe an apple-fennel quiche!  (Does that sound too weird?)  I did just get my pie crust technique worked out, so I’m terribly eager to make another pie ASAP.  Before I drift off into a hazy, fennel-scented fantasy, I’d better give you the salad recipe.  Maybe it will be a jumping-off point for your own fennel fantasies.

Happy Monday, friends!

Apple, Fennel, and Parmesan Salad

Adapted from A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg

Serves 1

Layers of thinly sliced apple are piled on top of fennel with drizzles of extra-virgin olive oil, lemon juice, and shavings of Parmesan cheese in between—this salad is floral, fruity, and dreamy.  I’ve been using Pink Lady apples in this salad.  Pink Ladies are sweet with a floral taste similar to that of a pear.  Plus the Pink Lady has a great name, don’t you think?  I know my niece would appreciate it.

Be sure to take the time to slice the fennel thinly.  I find thickly sliced fennel is just too chewy and fibrous to be enjoyed—it’s too much work for my jaw!  But thinly sliced fennel is crisp, delicate, and easy to enjoy.

Finally, even though it’s delicious, restrain yourself with the cheese.  Good Parmesan cheese is usually pretty strong, and if you use too much, you risk overwhelming the more delicate flavors of apple and fennel, which are the whole point of the salad.  The same thing can be said for the salt: a little goes a long way.

Half of a small bulb of fennel  (I’ve been using half of a roughly 4-ounce bulb of fennel, a bit larger than the size of a golf ball, just to give you a rough idea)

Half of a Pink Lady apple, or another apple with great flavor

Best-quality extra-virgin olive oil

Fresh lemon juice

Sea salt

Wedge of Parmesan cheese

1)  Prepare the fennel by slicing off the shoots (the part with the fronds) and the root end.  Halve the fennel from top to bottom; set aside one half for another day.  Thinly slice one of the halves.  My approach here is to use a sharp knife to slice it as thinly as possible.  I find small fennel bulbs much easier to slice thinly than larger bulbs.

2)  Prepare the apple by slicing it in half from top to bottom.  Set one of the halves aside for another day.  Slice the other half in half again, trim away the core and seeds, and thinly slice the remainder.

3)  To arrange the salad, make a layer of fennel pieces on a plate and drizzle them lightly with oil.  Make a pile of apple slices on top, drizzle with lemon juice, and sprinkle with a touch of sea salt.  Using a vegetable peeler, shave a piece or two of Parmesan onto the apple.  Repeat the layering, starting with fennel, until the fennel and apple are all arranged in layers.  I usually make two fennel layers here.  Drizzle with a little extra oil if you like and serve.