Sunday, February 28, 2010

Cookies: Any Time, Anywhere

The more I cook, and the more I write about cooking, the easier it is for me to see that my recipes generally fall into two camps: the cooking-for-one weeknight recipes and the more elaborate, festive, leftover-generating weekend recipes.  Sometimes a recipe will nicely toe the line between both camps, but that’s a tough thing to do.  I don’t expect it from any recipe, but occasionally, there will be a recipe that I’ve firmly planted in one camp, and that recipe, upon further investigation, proves to be quite feisty.  Today’s chocolate chip cookie recipe is one such example.

All I really wanted was a few cookies to satisfy my sweet tooth.  I wanted to make them myself, and I didn’t want three dozen leftover cookies lurking in my kitchen afterward.  A quick search on Google yielded a very promising looking recipe, a vegan recipe called “Cookies for Two.”  Bingo!  A quick peek at the recipe told me that it was an easy, simple sugar cookie recipe dressed up with a few chocolate chips and an optional sugar/salt coating.  Most importantly, I could make it without trotting over to the grocery store.  I was sold.

I was fairly obedient in my first date with this recipe, only making substitutions so I could use butter and cow’s milk instead of their vegan equivalents.  Out of laziness, I skipped the cookie coating.  The result was delicious: a thin, delicate cookie with crisped edges and a soft interior, dotted with big bittersweet chocolate chips.  It was hard to restrain myself at two cookies, but I did, which left me cookies for the next day’s lunchbag.  They were deceptively sturdy in transit and made for an excellent deskside dessert.

Of course I can’t resist tinkering with a good recipe, so the next time a cookie craving struck, I made a whole-wheat version with graham flour and a tiny spoonful of instant espresso powder.  I wanted the nuttiness of whole wheat and the bitter warmth of coffee, all melded together into a thin, crispy cookie with melted chocolate oozing throughout.  It seemed like a lot to ask of a cookie, but I knew this recipe wouldn’t let me down.

My first batch tasted fine enough, perhaps a little more fragile in texture than the original.  The night I made them, I really needed the calm warmth of my kitchen and the satisfaction of making something with my own hands.  I tucked the leftovers away without much thought.  The next day, I plotted my lunch: a Pita Pit pita after a brief visit to the lab, then an orange and a homemade cookie for dessert.  I ate outside, because you can do that in Texas in February, and the air smelled like spring.  I took a bite of my cookie, and, bewildered by what I tasted, said aloud, “Whoa.”

The cookie, it seemed, had somehow changed overnight from something tasty and basic to something far more complex and interesting.  The flavor had blossomed, bringing out rich notes of nuts and sugar, a subtle depth of coffee and the full round flavor of good chocolate.  It amazed me, and I thought maybe it was the alchemy of cookie with the taste of orange that lingered on my tongue, or even the spicy falafel of my pita.  Whatever it was, I sat there, stunned, unsure of what to make of a cookie that had surpassed all expectations.

Of course I wanted to know what, exactly, had changed this cookie’s flavor so profoundly, but the number of variables involved boggled my mind.  Was it an aging effect such that day-old cookies tasted better than freshly made?  Was it the difference between eating these cookies warm or at room temperature?  Was it just the aftereffects of a boldly flavored lunch bringing out all sorts of nice flavors in the cookie?  Trying to test all those variables felt overwhelming, so tonight I tested just one: warm versus cool.  Then, of course, like the excellent scientist I am, I promptly forgot to add the espresso powder to my cookie dough, thus negating my entire experiment…sort of.  Sadly, I would miss out on the coffee flavor that I craved, but I could still do a taste-test of warm and cool cookies, side by side, baked from the same batch of freshly made dough.  As far as experiments go, this one may not be perfect, but it’s among my favorites.

The results left me with no clear winner.  Or rather, I should say that I had two winners.  The room temperature cookie was baked and then left to cool for about an hour, while the warm cookie was baked, allowed to cool for about five minutes on the baking sheet, and then cooled very briefly on the rack.  Each cookie, I decided, had something wonderful about it.  The cool cookie was sturdier and tasted faintly of toffee.  The warm cookie had that lovely melty warmth of the oven and a delicacy that demanded I hold the plate under my chin while eating it.  Really, I’d be happy to eat a few of these cookies any time, anywhere—inside or outside, warm or cool, espresso or no.  Maybe I need a third category for my recipes: the whenever file.  These cookies will be my first entry.

Graham Cookies with Chocolate Chips and Espresso

Adapted from this recipe for Cookies for Two

Makes 8-9 cookies

1/2 cup plus 2 tbsp. whole-wheat graham flour

1/4 tsp. baking soda

Scant 1/8 tsp. salt

1/4 tsp. instant espresso powder, optional

1/4 cup butter, softened at room temperature

1/4 cup packed brown sugar

1/4 tsp. vanilla

1 tbsp. milk

1/4 cup bittersweet chocolate chips

1)  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.  Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.

2)  In a small bowl, stir together the graham flour, baking soda, salt, and espresso powder if using.  Set aside.

3)  In another small bowl, cream together the butter and sugar by hand.  Mix the vanilla and milk into the butter and sugar.  Mix the flour mixture into the butter mixture until combined.  Stir in the chocolate chips.

4)  Use a tablespoon to scoop rounded spoonfuls of dough.  Form the dough into balls and place on the prepared cookie sheet about two inches apart.  (The cookies will spread while baking.)  Bake for about 12 minutes.  Cool for 5-10 minutes on the baking sheet, then remove cookies from sheet and cool on a wire rack.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Time Flies

I’m of two minds this morning: hrrrmmph! and phew!

It was a challenging week in the lab.  Stuff broke.  Experiments gave wonky results.  Instruments decided to take an early weekend by not working on Friday afternoon.  Flies died.  Answers were not found.  Questions loom larger than ever.  Hrrrmmph!

But today is Saturday, and that is always a good thing.  I’m breaking my own rule today by going into the lab to take care of a few things, but my ambition bit me on the ass last night when I realized that I apparently cannot do simple math and failed to set up my flies properly for an experiment today.  Somehow it seems like a fitting end to a week in which things have not gone as one might hope.  Whatever—better luck next time, Dr. Rosiecat!

I was watching an episode of Grey’s Anatomy the other night and in it, a younger Chief Webber says to a young Dr. Bailey, “If you never get a negative appy, that means you’re not doing enough appies.”  This comment follows the surgical discovery that their patient has a healthy appendix, despite presenting symptoms that suggest appendicitis.  Chief Webber’s wisdom is how I feel about experiments: if you don’t get any negative results, if things don’t go wrong from time to time, then you aren’t doing enough experiments.  So I try to be brave and I keep pursuing the data because one of these days, I’ll catch it.

That being said, I’m still relieved that the weekend will be a vacation from bad news.  Phew!  After a difficult week in the lab, I’m not much in the mood for new things on the weekend.  I want a guarantee on my time spent relaxing and unwinding, so I’m reaching for a few trustworthy things to help me say, “Hello, weekend!”

* I’m re-reading A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg, cover to cover.  I miss Orangette now that Molly’s posts are sporadic, and I love a good book that lets you sink into it like a warm bath.  Although I’ve read certain chapters from this book many times, there is something altogether different about reading the whole book again.  I think I’ve read it twice, so this time will be my third.  It still makes me very happy—and itchy to bake some banana bread!

* Speaking of A Homemade Life, the other night I bought a bunch of radishes at the grocery store.  I have missed radishes.  For dinner tonight, I’ll be making a radish and butter sandwich and pairing it with sweet Jess’s Simplest Tomato Soup, which is my top choice for tomato soup these days.  And may I recommend that you read the posts attached to those links?  They are among my very favorite posts from two of my favorite bloggers.

* I just can’t enough time with my oven these days.  The alchemy of baking keeps me hovering over the stove like a fruit fly over a banana.  This week I returned to an old favorite, my Crunchy Breakfast Granola, mixing it up a bit by adding some puffed corn cereal to the recipe in place of the quick-cooking oats.  I’ve been eating it by the baggieful, poured over plain yogurt studded with fresh banana slices.  If I eat it sitting at my desk at work, occasionally I have to swat a fruit fly away from me because they know how good it tastes.  It’s funny how time makes you forget your own recipes, but it feels wonderful to rediscover the foods of your past.  It is the best kind of nostalgia, I think.

* Outside of the kitchen, it’s a big weekend for me.  Tomorrow I do my final training run before the Armadillo Dash half-marathon next weekend.  I’ve got 75 minutes of steady trotting planned—10 minutes more than my long run last weekend.  75 is a big number, but I think with a little snack-and-hydration break, I can make it happen.  I’m going to dust off an old recipe from Sunlight Cafe: Mollie Katzen’s Breakfast Biscotti.  She describes them as a cross between a granola bar and real biscotti; I think they’ll be perfect snacks for a hungry, carb-craving runner.  I’ve made them once before, so this time I feel entitled to tinker with the recipe: I’m thinking chocolate chips and a post-baking smear of peanut butter.  Paired with some juice, they’ll fuel me deliciously through all those miles.

Let the weekend begin!  What’s on your list today? 

Sunday, February 21, 2010

A Resolution Revealed

I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions.  I think it’s because I’m not really inspired by the new year.  It’s usually cold and dark outside and I’m busy soaking up my alone time after all the family time at Christmas.  I don’t want to think about change in January.  I want to think about comfort and blankets and books, with mugs of tea and hot chocolate by my side.  I want to take couch cruises or snuggle with my favorite carnivore.  For me, winter is a time to relax and contemplate, while spring or summer is the time to put resolutions into action.  But this year, things are a little different.

Recall that I moved to Texas in October of 2009.  Since then, I’ve been bobbing along, doing research in my new lab and only vaguely aware that by accepting this job in Texas, I have committed to staying here for several years.  The days go by so fast, and I sleep like a rock at night.  But the idea that Texas is now home, as in home is where the heart is—that idea has not squidged its way into my heart.  I feel like I’m here on sabbatical, an extended stay while I do some fun work in a different place.  It would not surprise me if a moving truck showed up tomorrow to take my stuff back to Chicago.  I don’t feel like I belong here.  I don’t know how long I will stay.  And I don’t mind either of these things.  Because I feel almost certain that I will leave College Station for another job within five years.  Maybe I’ll be wrong, maybe I will stay longer, but either way, this place ain’t home yet.

It’s not that I dislike Texas.  It has been very nice to me so far, which is to say that I’m enjoying my extended stay down here.  Today was beautiful, balmy day of sunshine and warmth.  I ran around town in a t-shirt and shorts, logging miles for my half-marathon training.  Later, after lunch and a shower, I sat outside by the pool and read science papers in the sun, groggy with heat and exercise.  It felt great.  It felt like vacation.  And maybe that explains why Texas doesn’t feel like home yet: it’s too easy down here.

Without winter to drain my energy and my will to live, I have a lot of time to spend doing other things.  And if it’s the lack of winter that makes this place seem so odd (that, and the ginormous trucks that everyone drives), then clearly I need to do something that will tie me emotionally to this place, something that is not a vacation activity, like sunbathing.  Something quiet and homey and comforting.  Something like cake.

My New Year’s resolution this year is to bake more cakes.  I’m more of a cookie-and-brownie woman, but these days I am finding myself drawn to cake recipes.  There is just something special about even the humblest cakes.  I like the plain, rustic ones best, the ones with minimal fussing and loads of flavor.  I hear this is very French of me.  Whatever it is, I’m going with it because making cakes makes me happy—the sifting of dry ingredients, the cracking of eggs, the pouring of oil, the licking of spoons.  There is just so much tangible fun to be had when baking—I love it.  And I hope that over time and with enough new recipes, I’ll discover my own cake repertoire, the collection of recipes that become my signatures.  When that happens, I will think back to my first year or two in Texas, and how it was my oven and my mixing bowls that sweetly convinced me that a tiny university town in the middle of east Texas could be home, at least for a little while.

Blueberry Yogurt Cake

Adapted from Vegetarian Times

Make 1 round 9-inch cake, or about 8 nicely sized slices

The issue of Vegetarian Times from which this recipe comes arrived on a Thursday and by Saturday I was making this cake.  That is blazing fast turnaround time in my kitchen, which illustrates how delighted I was by the idea of a blueberry yogurt cake.  The original recipe calls for a lemony glaze that you brush on the cake, but after tasting the batter, I decided to hold off on the glaze.  So as not to deprive you, dear reader, I will list it here but be forewarned that I have not tried it…yet.

I also made several ingredient substitutions, which I’ll list below.  The ingredient listed first is what I used; in parentheses I list the original suggestion.

But what I really want to tell you is that this cake is wonderful.  Moist with the flavor of a great yellow cake, this cake is speckled with blueberries inside its soft, large crumbs.  A sprinkling of cornmeal gives it a touch of gritty texture, which I thought would be offputting but turns out to be a nice touch.  You could certainly leave out the cornmeal if you wanted, but I think I’m going to keep it.  It goes well with the blueberries—like an American touch in a European-style cake.

For the cake:

1 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, divided

1/4 cup cornmeal

2 tsp. baking powder

1/2 tsp. salt

3/4 cup brown sugar, packed

1/3 cup olive oil (or grape seed oil)—I used Mezzetta extra-virgin Italian olive oil, which has a mild, grassy taste

2 tbsp. fruit juice (or Cointreau liqueur)—I used Dole Orange Peach Mango juice

1 tsp. vanilla extract

2 large eggs, at room temperature (mine were still a little chilly…)

7 ounces low-fat Greek yogurt (Fage comes in 7-oz. containers.  The volume for this is 1 cup minus 3 tbsp.)

2/3 cup fresh or frozen blueberries (I used frozen—no thawing required)

For the glaze (optional):

3 tbsp. lemon juice

2 tbsp. light brown sugar

1 tbsp. Cointreau liqueur or water

1)  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.  Grease and flour a 9-inch cake pan.

2)  Measure out the flour and reserve 1 tbsp. of it in a small bowl.  In a medium bowl, whisk together the remaining flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and salt.  Set aside.

3)  In a separate large bowl, use an electric mixer to mix together the sugar, olive oil, fruit juice, and vanilla until smooth.  Beat in the eggs.  Alternate adding the Greek yogurt and flour mixture to the sugar-oil mixture to make the cake batter.

4)  Toss the blueberries with the tablespoon of reserved flour.  Fold them into the cake batter.  Pour the batter into the pan.

5)  Bake for 45-50 minutes.  Check doneness with a toothpick; it should come out clean save for a few small crumbs (and maybe a blueberry stain if you pierced one).  The top will be golden and bouncy-firm.  Cool for ten minutes on a rack, then run a knife around the edges and invert the pan to remove the cake.

6)  To make the optional glaze, whisk together the ingredients in a small bowl.  Poke holes in the top of the cake with a wooden skewer and brush the cake with glaze.  Serve.  I ate my first (unglazed) slice while it was still warm and thought it was lovely.  It’s also good the next day eaten at room temperature.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Weekend Appetite: Coffee, Cake, and Words

I must have a case of spring fever because all week I’ve wanted to skip work so I could go outside and play.  Since I’m a mature grown-up, I did not skip work; instead I just compared notes with everyone around me and I do believe that there’s a spring fever sweeping through town right now.  Rumor has it we may see 70-degree weather this weekend.  I can’t wait!  This is why I moved to Texas.  That, and the job that keeps me inside windowless rooms every day.

Right now thick sheets of grey clouds blanket the sky, and there’s a chorus of birds singing outside my apartment.  The temperature is mild, but the sun is nowhere to be seen.  It’s the kind of day that is filled with suspense.  Will it rain?  Will the sun break through those clouds?  Will the temperature drop precipitously into the scarf-and-mitten range?  The drama of it all makes me feel tense and clueless about what to wear today.

All I know is that this weekend needs to involve copious amounts of relaxing.  I’m not good at deliberate relaxation when I’m alone.  But the only social plan on my calendar is a phone date with a friend, so I need to cobble together a plan to make the most of this nice Saturday/Sunday pair.  If the sun comes out, I’m planning to sunbathe by the pool while I read papers.  I’m really missing the sun this morning!  Even with no sun, I’m going to make a much-needed trip to the other side of town to do some shopping at Target and HEB.  As an extra treat, I’m going to take myself to lunch at a restaurant called Soup’er Salad, a place I’ve wanted to check out for months now.  The name alone makes me think I’ll like it.  I miss my Panera.

Despite the spring fever, this past week was not a bad one at all.  New issues of Vegetarian Times and EatingWell arrived in my mailbox, along with City:Country, a book co-authored by one of my favorite bloggers.  I’m a voracious reader who needs constant infusions of new material.  The new Vegetarian Times looks especially promising, with its “Coffee Klatch” article filled with recipes to serve at a coffee tasting.  I would love a slice of their Blueberry Yogurt Cake with Lemon Glaze and a mug of coffee later today.  I could make it happen.

Speaking of coffee and cake, I wish I could invite Anne Lamott over to drink coffee and eat cake with me.  She is such an amazing writer that she blows me away with the beauty and hilarity of her words.  I want to tell her how much I have enjoyed her work.  This week I was hooting with laughter at these old Anne Lamott pieces from Salon: Reading, writing, resistance and Dear Mr. President: What are you thinking?  I may have had tears rolling down my cheeks from laughing so hard at a paragraph in that last one—it was a sneak attack of Lamott-style humor.  Today I’m excited to read this piece called How to get your man

There are moments when I think that if Anne Lamott had been my mother, she could have taught me everything I need to know to live a good life.  Love everyone.  Breathe.  Show up.  Sit outside.  Dance.  Stop sucking your stomach in.  Try not to kill anyone today.  Maybe she is teaching me those things anyway.  It’s not a bad blueprint of a plan for a weekend or any other day of the week.

I hope your weekend lives up to its promises, dear reader.  I’ll see you back here tomorrow.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Don’t Fear the Butter

In the wake of Valentine’s Day, it seems only right to tell you that I’m having a love affair with butter.

It’s not my fault that butter is so delicious, clean and rich-tasting, capable of making savory and sweet dishes something to linger over.  It smells good too, whether it’s melting into a puddle of olive oil before being tossed with some thinly sliced red onions, or baking in little tea cookies or dense chocolate brownies.  Butter really does make things better, and I for one think that butter has earned its place in the kitchen, healthy or not.

But wait.  Am I the only one who thinks that butter has been given a second chance with the rising popularity of dairy from grass-fed cows?  Talk about good news for us hedonistic health nuts!  Rumor (or science) has it that grass-fed cows’ butter contains higher levels of antioxidants and those so-called “healthy” fats like conjugated linoleic acid and omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.  Now, I’m not really convinced that butter’s saturated fat is bad—that whole trans-fat issue really scrambled the data set and if coconut is supposed to be good for us now, then I think the jury is still out on saturated fat.  Regardless, I eat my butter, and I love every last morsel of it.

I have, however, made a conscious decision to buy butter from grass-fed cows as much as I can.  I’m really elated to find that my natural foods store (my “Brambles,” as I might say to Laurie) carries a regular supply of Organic Valley’s Organic Pasture Butter.  It is more expensive than regular organic butter, but I believe it’s worth it.  If you’re going to love butter, you might as well love the good stuff.

I love butter so much that I decided to put it somewhere that it rarely shows up: in a nut butter.  It was a magical moment for me when I realized I could make my own nut butters at home.  It also shows that I’m kinda slow sometimes, since I watched my friend Daine make his own peanut butter in his Chicago kitchen.  And never mind the huge “grind-your-own” vats at stores like Whole Foods.  I could make MY OWN NUT BUTTER!  Suddenly spending ten dollars on a jar of walnut butter was totally unnecessary—I could make it myself at home!  And best of all, I could make a custom blend of my favorite ingredients.  When was the last time you had a pecan butter?  Seriously!  But you can have it at home—all you need is a decent food processor and a touch of patience.  And a bit of butter.  I add a tablespoon of butter to about a cup of nuts because I thought the butter would give it a nice, creamy texture—it would help meld the flavors together.  What I got was a nubbly, sweet yet complex-tasting spread that I found positively addictive.  It’s delightful.  And so without further ado, I give you the recipe.

Honey Walnut-Pecan Butter

Makes ~1 cup

This nut butter is lightly sweetened with honey.  The bitterness of the walnuts adds an unusual layer of flavor, and the pecans and butter round everything out with their pleasant richness.  I like this nut butter a lot with apple slices, but I love it with a banana.  It reminds me of a banana split, which is always a good thing.

One last thing, about the title of this post: “I gotta have more cowbell!

1/2 cup pecans (whole or coarsely chopped)

1/2 cup walnuts (whole or coarsely chopped)

1 tbsp. butter

1 tbsp. honey

1)  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.  Place the nuts on a large rimmed cookie sheet.  Toast them in the oven for 5-6 minutes, then remove and let them cool for a few minutes.

2)  Place the toasted walnuts and pecans in a food processor.  Grind for a few minutes to create a chunky paste.  Add the butter and honey.  Grind for another minute or two, scraping down the sides as needed, until the paste has reached a uniform consistency.  It will still be nubbly using a regular food processor like mine, but with a high-powered blender like a Vita-Mix, you might be able to get a smoother, creamier texture.  Myself, I like the nubbly texture.

3)  Store any leftovers in a tightly-lidded container in the fridge.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

About Love, Old and New

Good morning, dear readers! It’s already been a good morning for me, between a good night’s sleep, a big bowl of banana oatmeal, and that Saturday feeling. It’s a working weekend for me because I’ve got a presentation to prepare for lab meeting on Monday and flies to water in the lab later today, but I don’t mind. It’s still Saturday!

I’m rediscovering all sorts of old things that I once loved and then forgot. I think it’s nice, a little like meeting up with an old friend after a long absence. Last night, after a reluctant 20-minute run in the cold and the dark, I put on a Norah Jones CD and made myself an almond crust pizza and a spinach salad. Everything hit the spot, especially the music. This CD was her feels like home album. Two of my favorite songs are “Creepin’ In” and “Toes.” I’m also partial to “Sunrise” because I consider sleeping late to be a weekend requirement.

I’ve discovered a new dessert tea that I want to share with you: Stash Decaf Chocolate Hazelnut Tea. Really: chocolate hazelnut! If you doctor it up with a splash of milk and a teaspoon of sugar, it’s like hot chocolate but lighter on the palate and with an almost fruity finish. I’m a huge fan of drinking herbal teas with dessert, but I think this Stash tea is going to work its way into my rotation.

This weekend I think I’m going to trot out some old favorite recipes for the big Saturday dinner. I haven’t made Matt’s Chickpea and Artichoke Heart Stew in a long time, and since it is Valentine’s Day weekend, it somehow seems appropriate to make recipes that remind me of Matt. I miss him in a sweet, happy way—with fondness and love. I’m glad our friendship blossomed into so much more.

With Matt’s stew I’m going to have his Spinach and Orange Salad and maybe a hunk of chewy bakery bread. The broth in the stew is so good and perfect for bread-dunking. Dessert will probably be a lazy affair of pantry-pawing to find something sweet to eat alongside a mug of my new Stash tea.

I know I tend toward the sappy and sentimental in my posts, but I can’t help but remember how scared and sad I felt a year ago at Valentine’s Day. I was crushed by the darkness of winter and the looming unknown questions about finishing my PhD and what would happen after that. I had no idea that I would be living in Texas by the end of the year or enjoying a research position in a new lab, one that would allow me to put all my hard-earned knowledge to work on new projects. Research is still hard—it’s never easy—but I’m so much happier with it than I imagined possible. I don’t feel crushed under the weight of my worry any more, and for that I will never stop feeling grateful. That’s why my PhD matters so much to me: it set me free.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A Dispatch in Which I Declare This Week a Success

I’m having such a good week!  I just had to stop by tonight to tell you about it.

I’ve been reading like a maniac for work this week, but today I finished my quota—three papers between Sunday and today!—and I’m feeling very accomplished.  Also, this afternoon I got an exciting preliminary result which is stoking my science fire.  On top of those things, today I knocked out a set of niggling little things that have been crowding my to-do list for a week, and there is nothing nicer than checking things off the list when they’ve been hanging over your head for way too long.

On the home front, I’m so excited to start making my new apartment feel like a home.  I’ve been living in my new place for about four months now, but it still doesn’t feel quite like home.  One of the big projects on my list is to finish unpacking and organizing the second bedroom, which I’ve dubbed my writing studio.  Does that sound pretentious?  Maybe a little.  But it’s true that I do the majority of my writing in there, and I just like the idea of having a writing studio.  Anyway, there are two big things I want to do with this room: get rid of my old college textbooks and buy bookcases for the books that I’m keeping.  This week I placed an ad on craigslist to see if I could just give someone my textbooks, and I received more than a dozen e-mails.  Now I’m just waiting to hear back from someone about making arrangements to give the textbooks to her.  I have trouble waiting—I want them gone!—but I think I’ll give her a week.  After that, the books go to the next guy!

I also started working on the bookcase question.  I’m having a hard time deciding exactly what kind of furniture I want to buy for this apartment.  There are too many options!  So I’ve decided to start small: I want to buy a pair of nightstands for my bedroom, and I want them to have some shelving.  I found a cute maple-colored nightstand at  Before I purchase them, I’m going to check out the options in a brick-and-mortar Target, but I’m feeling happy having found something I like.  Baby steps, friends.

Finally, there was refrigerator soup for dinner tonight and a big oven-crisped flour tortilla topped with white bean hummus, melted sharp cheddar, and two roasted tomato halves.  I cooked with the classic rock station cranked up so I could sing along with it.  There may have been some dancing too.  Admittedly, the soup was bland and desperately needed a hefty dose of salt, but its frugality pleased me, leaving behind it an emptier vegetable drawer and just one bowl of leftover soup.  I’ve still got room for dessert, which will be a piece of shortbread, retrieved from the freezer, and a square each of dark and white chocolate.  (I’m craving chocolate tonight.)  There are good books waiting for me and maybe a spot of journaling as well.  Tomorrow morning there will be a bowl of pumpkin cottage cheese oatmeal similar to this one and perhaps a mug of lightly sweetened chai to match the warm spiciness of the oats.  I’m going to soak the oats overnight like I usually do.  There’s just something nice about doing that little bit of prep work the night before to make the morning more welcoming.

I hope your week is going well, sweet reader, with lots of getting-stuff-done and good meals in between.  The weekend is just two days away!

Sunday, February 7, 2010

In Desperate Times

I have a secret weapon against the gloom and doom of endlessly rainy days, the everyday grind, the early mornings, the exhausted evenings—in short, the business of being a grown-up.  It’s not easy, this grown-up schtick.  More often than I’d like to admit, I’m completely overwhelmed by it all—job, bills, cleaning, feeding myself, and trying not to go crazy.  I could really use a housewife to take care of me, someone to put a hot dinner on the table for me and rub my back while making soothing shhh, it’s okay sounds.  Housewives were really a fabulous invention.  If only we could all run over to Target to buy one!

Without a housewife around, the temptation to buy a one-way ticket to Italy, where I could eat my weight in pasta and gelato a la Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love is almost more than I can bear.  But in desperate times, my secret weapon is stashed in the pantry or, rather, a brown paper bag in the corner since my kitchen’s pantry is laughably small.  It’s a stack of lumpy red-skinned potatoes.  It’s no housewife, but it’s awfully nice in its own ugly way.

Potatoes are, for me, one of the ultimate comfort foods.  I love that they are dug straight out of the earth, like a hidden treasure, a gift nurtured by the dirt, the rain, and, on nicer days, the sunshine.  I like their musty smell and the way they feel in my hand, solid and heavy.  When I was a child, I even liked the crunch of raw potato, snatched from my mother’s countertop as she cut potatoes into chunks for boiling or mashing.  Potatoes were a constant of my childhood, and though I rarely eat them now as my mother prepared them, potatoes are deeply, viscerally comforting to me.

I also like that potatoes are not an instant food.  Despite my childhood potato-snatching, I no longer eat them raw.  I like them in soups and stews, and there’s a really wonderful recipe for Golden Cheddar Cheese Soup in Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home that uses potatoes to make a creamy base for a bright but soothing pureed soup.  But my favorite way to eat potatoes these days is roasted.  The dry oven heat creates the perfect combination of textures: crispy-crunchy brown on the outside, creamy and soft on the inside.  Flavor-wise, I find potatoes to be a blank slate.  I like that about them.  They’re so forgiving about seasonings that you can ask yourself what flavors sound good to you right now, and the potato will take happily to just about whatever you throw at it.  If only all things in life were so carefree and accommodating!

On these endlessly rainy winter nights, I’ve returned to a recipe that started me on my potato-roasting path.  The original recipe is from my favorite all-purpose cookbook, Passionate Vegetarian, a book that I think every serious vegetarian cook should own.  The recipe first caught my eye with its clever name: Ned’s Fiery Oven French-Bakes.  What is a French-Bake?, I wondered.  “Spicy, Cajun-style French fries that aren’t fried but baked,” the recipe answered.  It warned me that these fries are addictive, but I paid it no mind and made them anyway.  And you know, I’m really glad I let my belly make decisions in these matters because the belly knows best.  Five years and a few recipe tweaks later, these oven fries still slay me with their incredible depth of flavor and crispy-creamy texture.  The secret is the use of rice vinegar with garlic oil on the fries before they go into the oven.  The finished fries deliver an immediate tang of flavor, followed by something savory and rich, a sort of deep umami that tastes unlike anything I’ve ever eaten before.  They are seriously good—better than a raw potato even.  Now, head into the kitchen because I’m about to give you the recipe.

Oil-and-Vinegar Oven Fries

Adapted from Passionate Vegetarian

Serves 2 (or 1, maybe with leftovers depending on greediness)

2 medium-large red-skinned potatoes (mine are about baseball-sized these days)

1/2 tbsp. garlic-infused olive oil

1 tbsp. rice vinegar

1/8-1/4 tsp. Tabasco sauce (I’d lean toward 1/8 tsp. here, but if you like a lot of heat, go for the 1/4 tsp.)

Salt to taste

Black pepper to taste

1)  Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.  Line a large baking sheet with a Silpat.

2)  Rinse the potatoes thoroughly and pat dry with a paper towel.  Use a vegetable peeler to remove any eyes or other really funky spots.  With a knife, slice the potatoes into French fry-shaped pieces about 1/2-inch thick.  In a bowl, toss the potatoes with the garlic oil, then add the vinegar and toss again.  Dribble the Tabasco over them, add some salt and pepper, and toss again.

3)  Spread the potatoes in a single layer on the Silpat-covered baking sheet.  Pop them in the oven and bake for 30-40 minutes, turning them every 10 minutes or so.  These fries don’t turn spectacularly brown and crisp, but if you are so inclined, you could try baking them longer to get a browner, crispier oven fry.  I like them a little crispy with a nice, creamy interior.  And that flavor!  Amazing.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Thank You Times Two, Plus a Winner

After the giveaway this week, I’ve got a new wish list for my kitchen.  There are so many useful, pretty items in that store!  I’m saving my pennies for some shopping because a well-loved and smartly equipped kitchen is a happy place to be.

Before I announce the winner, I want to say thank you to the generous folks at CSN Stores for sponsoring this contest.  I also want to thank those of you who entered the contest!  I loved reading about your weekend plans—it was a little like tagging along with you on your adventures.  Thank you for sharing and for spending time with me here at Life, Love, and Food.

According to The Random Integer Generator, the winner is…


*** The official data:

Here are your random numbers:


Timestamp: 2010-02-06 16:47:28 UTC)

Daine’s comment made me smile because I miss Chicago, its food and its people.  Daine wrote,

“I'm going to India town with Amanda and Erin (she got good news from UIC, if you haven't heard). When you come back to Chicago, you have to go to Uru Swati. The ambiance leaves much to be desired, but the food there is heavenly. They also have the best Bhindi masala (okra) that I've ever eaten.

I'm actually glad that you put up that advertisement. I'm not in the market for any bar stools right now, but they do have a sugar bowl that I will probably order. I have distinct conceptions of products I'd like to own, but then spend years searching in vain for what I'd like (a square glass pitcher, for example). They almost have what I was imagining for a sugar bowl. It's probably worth buying, since the exact thing I'm envisioning probably doesn't exist.”

Happy shopping, Daine!  The rest of us will have to keep saving our pennies for a kitchen treat.  Where’s my piggy bank?

A Declaration of Weekend

I believe in weekends.

Recently, all of the students working in my lab have been obsessed with the question of working weekends.  Every single one of them has asked me if I work weekends.  My answer is ambiguous: no and yes.  During my graduate student days, I struggled with this issue.  Sometimes I enjoyed working weekends.  The lab was quiet and peaceful, I could sit and ponder my data, I could think about which experiments I wanted to do next, and I could leave whenever I felt ready to go home.  There was a certain freedom to it that I liked.  But I also found that the more I worked weekends, the less I pushed myself to get my work done Monday to Friday.  Tasks stretched themselves to fill the time I allowed them to occupy.  I was less efficient, even though I was spending more time in the lab.  And over time, I wanted to spend fewer weekends in the lab and more time having fun.  I wanted to be more efficient so I could have a life—and be a successful scientist.  For my happiness, I needed to believe that I could do both.

My answer now to the working weekend is this: if I work on the weekends, I work from home.  I try NOT to be in the lab on the weekends unless it’s essential (and sometimes it is).  As a postdoc, I feel it is more important than ever to make time to read scientific papers, so that is my weekend work.  I love to read on my blue couch.  I’ve even made myself a little star chart to track the number of papers I’m reading each week.  My goal is to read three papers; most weeks I read two.  That’s a big improvement over zero!  I didn’t read enough as a graduate student, and it’s a habit that I want to remedy.

The most important thing that I do to keep up my momentum in the lab is that one day a week, I don’t do any work at all.  Perhaps it sounds lazy, but for me it’s the perfect balance.  It encourages me to push myself hard because I know that I will give myself time to rest.  I need the fire under my bottom to keep me moving, but without a day to relax, I’ll just burn to a crisp.  I really want this postdoc to be my steppingstone to a faculty position, which means I’m in it for the long haul—probably a minimum of four years.  I’ve got to make it work for me.

So like I said, I believe in weekends.  Especially weekends that come on the heels of a difficult week in the lab.  I deserve a good weekend.  This one feels wide open to me, big enough for me to stretch my legs and wiggle my toes.  Big enough for a good yawn and a catnap on the couch, before or after reading Matt’s book or Nigel Slater’s the kitchen diaries or even the section about making grits in Passionate Vegetarian.  All of these things sound good to me!

Here’s a happy list of other items from my weekend plans:

* I have a phone date with my lovely friend Nicole, whom I miss very much and with whom I didn’t get to visit much last time we saw each other.  She’s a gem and I’m excited to catch up with her.

* Pancakes!  I’ve been thinking about making pancakes for weeks now.  I love the sound of this recipe from 3191 Miles Apart.  Spelt flour and whole oat flour!  Yum!  Plus I’ve got almost a cup of homemade citrus syrup left over from making Daine’s Yogurt Cake a few weeks ago, and I have a feeling the syrup will make a stellar pancake sauce.

* I yielded to temptation and slipped a copy of February’s Bon Appetit into my grocery cart last weekend.  There are easily ten recipes I want to trot into my kitchen from this issue, but I’m intrigued by one in particular, Easy Chicken Masala.  In this recipe, the chicken is marinated in a whole-milk yogurt sauce spiked with cilantro and garam masala, then it’s roasted over a bed of onion slices.  I’m so curious to see if the same technique will work with chickpeas that I’m ready to draw up my grocery list for tomorrow night’s dinner.

Happy weekend to you, dear readers!  I hope it’s a good one.