Sunday, April 25, 2010

Swimming, with a Side of Pasta Carbonara

Last week, I had a perfect evening.  It was so relaxing, so delightful that it carried that magical vacation quality—the one that sweeps away all your worry and stress and leaves you feeling blissfully calm and happy.

It started with a swimming pool.  My apartment complex has a salt-water pool.  It looks like a regular in-ground swimming pool, but it lacks that horrible bleachy smell of chlorinated water.  Lounge chairs and palm trees are scattered around the pool, and sometimes tiny lizards hang out on the metal fence that guards the pool area.  When I was looking at apartments back in September, I was immediately charmed by the salt-water pool.  It was a sign: this is the place for me.  I had never lived in a place that had its own pool, let alone one that felt like I was stepping into a spa resort.

The Pool and Me

I arrived in Texas in October of 2009, but I was overwhelmed by the chaos of moving and never made it into the pool before winter arrived.  I spent Sundays in January relaxing in a lounge chair by the pool, reading science papers but never dipping a toe in the water—it was too cold.  Even now, in late April, the water feels chilly at first, and I gasp in shock at the cold when my legs meet the water.  But I go deeper—knees, thighs, bum, stomach, arms—until I push off a wall to begin swimming and all of a sudden the water feels perfect—cool and gentle, alternately resisting my movement and then carrying me along in my own currents.

Last Wednesday I went for my first swim.  I use the term “swim” loosely because I discovered that the shallowness of my pool—it’s only 4 feet deep at its max—is perfect for aqua-jogging, which is exactly what it sounds like: running in the water.  When I was on the cross-country team in college, we used to aqua-jog for our morning work-outs, and much as I hated working out at 6:30 AM, I loved aqua-jogging.  It felt like a massage, loosening up all my muscles and leaving me feeling energized and refreshed.

In my new pool, I swam and I aqua-jogged and I tried not to think about people watching me because I have no grace when I’m flopping around in water.  Instead, I focused on how good the water felt and when I was on my back, kicking along, I watched black birds flying high above me in a jewel-blue sky.  And when I finally toweled myself off and went home, I felt like I was coming back from somewhere amazing, like a spa in California.  I couldn’t remember the last time I felt that relaxed.

All that splashing around in water left me thinking about one thing: dinner.  Last week I ate a lot of pasta, but only one of those dinners is worthy of your attention.  I have three words for you: vegetarian pasta carbonara.  While wandering about the interwebs, I found a recipe over at The Kitchen Sink for Bucatini Carbonara and immediately started salivating for a vegetarian version.  To tell you the truth, I have wanted to try making a pasta carbonara for a long time, ever since I saw a very garlicky version in Passionate Vegetarian.  But I was scared of the raw egg that gets mixed with Parmesan cheese and other goodies to make a rich sauce for the hot pasta.  This time I had no fear.  Carbonara is actually very easy to make: boil pasta, prepare sauce, toss pasta in sauce, season to taste, and boom—dinner is served.  I knew I could handle it.

Kristin’s recipe calls for cooking a leek in fat rendered from a hunk of pancetta.  I’m sure that’s delicious and all, but it’s definitely not vegetarian.  But I loved the idea of caramelized onion adding sweetness to the salty, savory pasta.  To add an element of smoke, I sprinkled smoked paprika into the caramelized onion just before tossing the onion into the pasta.  It worked like a charm.  The finished dish pushed all the right buttons: chewy pasta, savory cheese, smoky sweet onions, and a very healthy amount of black pepper.  My belly is starting to grumble right now, asking for more vegetarian pasta carbonara.  No worries: I made it again tonight and the leftovers will not go to waste.

I'm Ready for My Close-Up

Vegetarian Pasta Carbonara

Adapted from this recipe

Serves 2-3

1 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil

1 medium or large red onion, very thinly sliced

Generous pinch of salt, plus more to taste

2 cups uncooked dried pasta, such as rotini (I’ve been enjoying a rotini from Barilla—the Barilla PLUS Rotini, which is a multigrain pasta that also packs in some fiber and protein.  Plus it has a great texture—hearty without being gritty!)

1 egg

1/3 cup coarsely grated Parmesan cheese

Lots of freshly ground black pepper—I recommend at least 20 grinds from the pepper grinder.  (Counting is easier than measuring!)

1/2 tsp. smoked paprika

1)  In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat.  Add the onion slices and toss them in the hot oil until coated and a little bit softened.  Add the pinch of salt and turn the heat down to medium.  Let the onions cook for a few minutes, then turn the heat down to medium-low and let them cook here while you get the pasta going.  Stir the onions once every few minutes.

2)  Heat a large pot of water for the pasta and then cook the pasta according to the package’s directions.

3)  While the onions and pasta are going, make the sauce.  Place the egg and cheese in a medium or large mixing bowl.  Whisk them together with a fork and then mix in the black pepper.  (Don’t forget to stir the onions!)

4)  When the pasta is almost done, spoon out a tablespoon of the pasta water and slowly whisk it into the egg and cheese mixture.  (Stir the onions again.)

5)  Drain the pasta and then add it to the sauce.  Toss the pasta with the sauce for a minute or two to coat it and melt egg/cheese mixture into a nice creamy sauce.  (More onion-stirring, please.)

6)  By this time the onions should have cooked down into a nice pile of caramelized goodness.  Add the smoked paprika to the onions and let it cook over the medium-low heat for about 30 seconds.  Add the onions to the pasta mixture, toss everything together, and taste.  Season with salt and serve.

PS  I think the Wikipedia entry for carbonara is fascinating!  Also, please forgive me for leaving out the pork in my vegetarian carbonara.  In cooking, adaptation is the sincerest form of flattery, no?

Saturday, April 24, 2010

A Paradox of Present and Future


Howdy, folks!  It’s another gorgeous Saturday morning here in the Brazos Valley.  The temperature is cool, so I popped open the patio door to let in some of that fresh morning air.  I can hear a bird conversation, and the sun is glinting off the cars in the parking lot. 

As I was puttering around my apartment this morning, I realized that I’ve stopped thinking about my old apartment, the one in Illinois, as home.  It was a nice thought, as though my unconscious has finally accepted that we are here, in Texas, and we are staying here for a while.  I don’t know what the magic trigger is that allows a new place to finally replace the old one as home.  Is it the curvy hooks I bought for the bathrooms last weekend?  Some critical threshold for time spent cooking and cleaning here?  Or is it something less tangible, like the steady rhythm of returning here night after night, opening the front door and dropping my stuff as though I live here?  Whatever it is, I’m feeling unusually content these days.  I like it.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the paradox of self-acceptance and self-improvement.  On the one hand, we’re taught to love ourselves exactly as we are right now: flawed, imperfect, even ugly in some ways.  On the other hand, we’re taught that we should strive to improve ourselves and our lives, always working hard to make things better.  To me, these are conflicting goals because one idea negates the motivation to pursue the other.  I think I’ve had a headache for the last fifteen years while trying to do both of these things at the same time.

I’m much lazier than I used to be, and I think it’s because self-acceptance has won the battle.  My motivation to achieve is coming from somewhere other than a desire to improve myself.  In my current job, I feel closer to my teaching goal than I was in graduate school, so it’s easier to remember that this whole PhD schtick was my way to help others learn and achieve their goals.  Now that I’m done with school (forever!), I’m more motivated by curiosity than fear of failure.  My main project in the lab is wide open with possibilities.  I’m on the cusp of figuring out what those possibilities are and then deciding which ones I want to pursue.  It’s an exciting time for me, even though it feels like it’s moving at a snail’s pace.

Self-acceptance is a beautiful thing.  I think it makes us stronger and happier which, ironically, makes it easier to pursue our goals.  Maybe it’s a sort of detachment, like if I know that my self-esteem does not depend on publishing a Cell paper or running a marathon, it is less scary to contemplate the pursuit of those challenges.  I am someone who is intimidated by small things—washing the dinner dishes, for example, or calling a friend after a long silence—so anything I can do to lower my resistance to big dreams is a relief.  I have become my own cheerleader: You can do this!  You can do this!

The other incredible thing for which self-acceptance clears a path is pleasure.  Self-improvement fosters a mindset that is focused on the future, making it difficult for us to focus on the present.  Pleasure is all about the here and now.  For me, a big part of pleasure is slowing down and paying attention.  I still struggle with deliberate relaxation as thoughts of I should be doing this and I should be doing that float through my head.  It’s hard for me to stop worrying about the future so that I can enjoy the present.  Embracing pleasure is one way that I’ve been able to take my ambitions and turn them into something that lets me relax, finally.

Perhaps learning to live with paradox is a bridge from the black-and-white world of childhood to the shades of grey that paint our adult lives.  Life is never perfect but neither is it perfectly awful.  Even in my darkest moments, I’ve been able to appreciate the beauty of a tree trunk or a river flowing in gentle gurgles.  I have admired a field of dandelions, their yellow faces bright with determination.  I have sipped wine, marveling at how it still tasted good, even though I felt like I was living in a bottomless pit of unhappiness.  I accepted these pleasures, let them fill my mind and my heart.  I like to think that these small things, pleasures that made me feel good in spite of myself, helped me get to a place where my happiness could flourish again.  That is the place where self-acceptance meets self-improvement: the paradox becomes a circle.

Happy weekend, friends.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Whatever Happens

This week, my sassy writing partner and I are pondering a sense of place.  Check out a’s perspective on this topic here.

* * *

I first came across the phrase “a sense of place” in the introduction to The New Laurel’s Kitchen.  It’s embedded in an essay that I find so moving that I’ve read it countless times for comfort and inspiration.  For some readers, the emphasis is on the word place: a location, defined by coordinates that can be mapped by a GPS.  For me, the emphasis falls on the word sense.  For me, a sense of place is a feeling, evocative and romantic, sometimes lonely and sometimes infused with someone’s presence.  It’s an almost tangible quality about space and time, and if we remember it, we can always return to it.

In The New Laurel’s Kitchen, the place to which Carol Flinders refers is home.  Ideally, home is our very first sense of place, a childhood home that remains stable and steady against life’s thunderstorms.  I am undeniably attached to my childhood home, where my parents still live.  But ever since I left that home at the grown-up age of seventeen, I’ve bounced around from dorm room to apartment to house back to apartment.  It was with a giddy sense of relief that I signed my first apartment lease on the cusp of graduate school, knowing that finally, finally, I could stay in one place for more than nine months.  I ended up staying in that apartment for six years, and now that I’ve moved yet again, I miss it deeply.

I am a homebody, so it surprises me how much my sense of place has attached itself to places that are not home.  Gardens, for example.  I’m thinking of several garden spaces that are tucked into Northwestern University’s campus.  There’s a gorgeous one set against the library, featuring a statue of a naked female archer.  (Ooh la la!)  Another one is carved out of the quad, a place that feels quiet despite the fact that cars are rushing by on Sheridan Road a few hundred feet away.  The garden space that means the most to me is one that is close to the science complexes, and it isn’t even really much of a garden.  There are stone steps that lead to old wooden benches, and nearby there is a wooded space.  In the warmer months, lots of insects are busy flying here and there, taking care of business.  It’s humble and beautiful, peaceful and inviting.

It’s that last garden space where I had the most important conversation of my graduate student career.  It was a conversation I had with myself.  I remember it was June of 2008, and I was working on experimental revisions of my first-author paper for the third time.  The manuscript had been sent back to us twice already, with the editors telling us that we needed to do more experiments.  The problem was that none of my experiments were working.  It had been like that for months, almost a year by that point, and I felt like I was being crushed under the weight of my own frustration and anxiety.  At the time, all I knew was that I wanted this horrible period of professional limbo to be over.

It was a Saturday, and I was in the lab because I had a deadline to meet.  How I was still functional in spite of my mental state I don’t have a clue.  When it was time to break for lunch, I decided to walk over to my nearby garden space to dine al fresco.  I don’t remember what I ate.  What I do remember is lingering in that little secluded space, alone, and feeling utterly exhausted by my life.  I felt trapped, angry, and bitter.  I felt heavy with all the expectations that weighed on me.  The heaviest ones were the expectations from me.  And I remember feeling like I just can’t do this any more.  Something has to change.  As those desperate thoughts rolled around in my head, something in my heart unclenched and this thought, uninvited, popped into my head:

Whatever happens, it’s going to be okay.

I knew, as soon as I heard it or felt it or however I perceived that thought, that it was true.  Published paper or not, PhD or not, scientist or not—in that moment, none of those things mattered because whatever did happen, it was going to be okay.  The joy and relief I felt while sitting in that green space was immense.  It was like my heart opened up and let all the worry out, and then replaced it with sunshine and hope.

After that day, I returned to that little garden space frequently.  I ate my afternoon snacks out there, a quiet break where I would let out the breath that I didn’t know I was holding.  Sometimes other people would walk by my bench, and we’d smile politely, not saying a word.  It seemed like we all knew how rare the silence was and we wanted to hold onto it as long as possible.

I still think about that warm June day every once in a while.  It was a pivotal moment in my life, a chance to transcend the fear and anxiety that threatened to devour me.  In order to finish what I started, I needed to let go of everything.  To let go in order to hold on.  For a control freak, it’s the ultimate paradox.  But when I let go, I found that the thing I wanted to hold onto wasn’t the illusion of control.  It was my peace of mind.  That gift has been far more rewarding than any publication, award, or degree could ever be, though I admit that finishing my PhD wasn’t a bad consolation prize.  I can’t believe I get to have both.

Make a Wish

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Making a Case for Carrots and Crushed Tomatoes

Back in 2008, I made a list of items that would make life more pleasant for single people.  In light of yesterday’s monologue about The Trouble with Normal, I wanted to share it with you today.  If I were on the committee of People Who Run the World, I’d demand the following on behalf of all the singletons out there, especially the ones who cook dinner for themselves:

* Marinara sauce would be sold in 8-ounce jars, not just 20+-ounce jars.  Or it could come in single-serving cups, like applesauce!  The cups would be easily recyclable, of course.

* Crushed tomatoes would come in 14-ounce and 28-ounce cans.  14 ounces is a much more reasonable volume of tomatoes for the small-batch cooking that we single people favor.

* We’d have our own holiday, just as couples have Valentine’s Day.  And we would demand lots of chocolate to celebrate this holiday.

* You’d get a prize if you waited until age 30 to get married.

* Workplace PDAs would be banned.  Period.

Now that I’m two years older, I might be willing to consider a milder version of that last one.  Perhaps a time limit on PDAs at work?  30 seconds, max?

But I’m happy to report that at least one of my wishes has been granted.  Behold, the crushed tomatoes!

A Victory for All Single People

Here’s the best part.


Now, those of you who have been following along at home for a while may quibble with my claiming singleton status.  The IRS and the federal government will not because there is no marriage license with my name on it.  But with Matt still hanging around in my life, I don’t feel as single as I once did.  I feel…happy.  Properly loved and romanced and then loved some more.  That’s all I ever really wanted.  But most nights, when I step up to the stove, I’m still cooking for one, and dammit, I want my 14 ounces of crushed tomatoes!  And I still think that single-serving packages of marinara sauce would be pretty groovy.

There are plenty of days and nights when I’m grateful to have someone to love and a lot of autonomy.  For example, Matt recently told me that he hates carrots.  He hates carrots!  What am I supposed to do with that?  I love carrots.  They’re crunchy and colorful, sweet and healthy.  They go well with tahini sauce or peanut butter, and when my lunch is a little skimpy on vegetables, they step in to save the day.  They’re my favorite part of a soup or a stew, and when freshly juiced, carrots are incredibly refreshing.  I need carrots like I need oxygen or sunlight.

To be fair, I should probably tell you that Matt will eat a leeeetle bit of carrot in a salad.  Two weeks ago, he even picked one out at the farmers’ market to add to our lunch salad.  “For sweetness,” he told me.  The man makes a killer salad, so I’m happy to oblige whatever notions he’s got about vegetables.  But I did think we looked a bit silly, trying to buy a single carrot from a farmstand.

If we’d been planning to make the recipe I have for you today, we wouldn’t have looked quite as silly.  This soup is a delicious riff on a recipe from the archives.  The old recipe is a chickpea stew made sweet with handfuls of carrots and raisins, then spooned over rice and dolloped with yogurt for a sour punch.  I like it a lot.  The new recipe is a brothier version, a carrot and onion soup swirled with crushed tomatoes.  The chickpeas are still there, but to me they seem more like a supporting actor, hanging out in the background while the carrots and tomatoes deliver their lines.  I also tinkered with the spices a bit, halving the amounts of cinnamon and tumeric.  I always found the cinnamon a tiny bit too strong in the original recipe anyway, so I’m happy to reduce it here.

The result is a fragrant, richly seasoned soup that plays the sweetness of carrots against spice and acid.  I had it for dinner tonight, and I’m already looking forward to leftovers for tomorrow’s lunch.  But since it’s just me cooking for me, you’ll have to take my word for it that you should add this one to your soup rotation.  Just be sure that everyone at your table likes carrots, or you’ll waste a perfectly good cup of crushed tomatoes.

A Stovetop View

Moroccan Carrot and Tomato Soup

Adapted from this recipe

Serves 3-4 as a main course

2 tbsp. olive oil
1 onion, thinly sliced
3 cloves of garlic, chopped
1/2 tsp. ground tumeric
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 14.5-oz. can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
3 medium to large carrots, ends trimmed, peeled, and sliced into thin rounds
1 cup crushed tomatoes
4 cups vegetable stock or water
Salt and pepper to taste

1) In a soup pot or Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion and sauté for a few minutes or until it has softened and has a bit of color. Add the garlic and sauté for another 30 seconds or so. Add the spices and sauté, stirring frequently, for another 30 seconds until fragrant and toasty.
2) Stir in the chickpeas, carrots, crushed tomatoes, and vegetable stock or water. Cover and simmer for 20-25 minutes, or until the carrots have softened to tenderness. Stir occasionally while the stew is simmering.
3)  Taste and season with salt and/or pepper.  Serve in deep bowls to all the carrot-lovers in your life.

I Love Polka Dots

I love the polka-dots!  Can you guess who gave this bowl to me?

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Saturday, with Generosity, Hope, and the Color Green

Hello, weekend!  I’m so glad you’re here.

My weekend is already off to a fantastic start.  Yesterday I found a huge bag of lettuce sitting on my desk at work.  It was a gift from Christopher, our lab manager, whose garden is full to bursting with leaves right now.  Also included in the bag were a few frilly wands of dill.  Having had mixed experiences with fresh dill, I was under the impression that I didn’t really like dill, but last night, inspired by Christopher’s generosity, I sprinkled some chopped fresh dill on top of my enormous salad, and I liked it.  It was herbal and earthy, green and a tiny bit punchy.  I really, really liked it.  Also, it occurred to me this morning during my photography session that dill looks a lot like Sideshow Bob’s hair.  Yes?

Dill Impersonating Sideshow Bob

I feel like I’m in really good shape to have a relaxing weekend.  Not only is my fridge now filled with gorgeous lettuce, but I have also stocked up on the usual suspects for the upcoming week: yogurt, bananas, oatmeal, carrots, eggs, cheese, peanut butter, a loaf of whole grain bread.  I also have two bowls of split pea soup chilling in the fridge, as well as a leftover chickpea dish that I’ll toss with pasta, tomato sauce, and some kale.  It’s nice when cooking is optional, something to do for fun, not survival.

Dork that I am, I’m also excited that last night I got a bit of cleaning done.  I am not what you might call an enthusiastic cleaner; I would much prefer to read or cook than clean.  But I love how it feels after the cleaning is done, like everything is nice and fresh again.  Yesterday I received Real Simple’s 19-Minute Speed-Cleaning Guide in my e-mail box, so I decided to let it inspire me to spiff up the homestead.  Looking over their timeline, I’m pretty sure their times are ridiculously inaccurate.  15 seconds to wipe the toilet seat and rim?  15 seconds to wipe the mirror and faucet?  Maybe I’m just an arthritic sloth when it comes to cleaning, but my hands cannot move quickly enough to speed-clean my bathroom in two minutes.  I can, however, clean the bathroom in about five minutes, and oh my, it feels good to have a clean bathroom again.  Today I shall tackle the kitchen and the living room, which, according to Real Simple, I should be able to speed-clean in a total of 10.5 minutes.  Excellent.

On an unrelated note, have you been watching Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution?  I watch it via Hulu on my computer, and it is such a great show.  I really had no opinion about Jamie Oliver before his show other than thinking that he’s kinda funny-looking (oh, the shame of admitting my inner dialogue to you!).  Now, I still think he’s kinda funny-looking, but he’s also hilarious and generous and deeply concerned about the same food issues as I am.  The last episode I watched made me want to dance, laugh, and eat noodles, which, as a combination, is pretty hard to beat.  I highly recommend it.

A short list of a few other things I’m loving today:

* The new Gentle Hatha Yoga #3 class from  Heavenly!  Jackie Casal is my favorite yoga instructor.

* A spring breeze tickling my bare shoulders.

* The birds chirping to each other on this foggy Saturday morning, otherwise steeped in peace and quiet.

* Dried cherries!  One word: wow.  These things are too good.  My idea of a perfect dessert right now is a handful of dried cherries and some bittersweet chocolate chips.  So simple, so right.

* The Trouble with Normal by Michael Warner.  This book is about queer ethics, and I heard about it from a dear friend of mine.  Until recently, I thought that my connection to queer ethics was through my queer friends.  Then a friend said to me, “You’re the queerest straight person I know.”  At the time, her statement made me laugh and scratch my head, but the more I read and talked to people, the more I realized that yes, indeed, I am queer.  I date men, but I’m not interested in marriage or having children, and it’s impossible for me to know if someday I will be interested in those things.  That attitude makes me queer.  But what really makes me queer is that I resent how married people are granted all sorts of luxuries and privileges that are denied to us single folks or people who are in unmarried relationships.  Marriage does not make one relationship superior to another.  You are not a more upstanding citizen if you have a spouse.  You’re a person, just like me, just like my queer friends, just like my unmarried straight friends.  One of the things I love about The Trouble with Normal is how Warner agitates to knock marriage off its pedestal.  I don’t know if I would go so far as to say that the institution of marriage ought to be abolished, but I certainly think that as a culture, we need to get a grip on the idea that being unmarried is a perfectly acceptable way to live one’s life, no matter who we’re dating or not dating.

I’m done ranting now.  Suffice to say, Warner’s book is blowing my mind.

Will I see you here tomorrow in spite of my ranting?  I’ve got a wonderful recipe to share with you, simple and healthy and bursting with flavor.  In the meantime, I’ll be riding my bike around town, buying cans of crushed tomatoes and a new dish rack and maybe even a pair of tongs.  I hear they are an awesome kitchen tool!  May your weekend be as lovely as a carpet of Texas wildflowers, as beautiful and different from each other as humans.

So Much to See Down There

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A Creature of Habit


Hello again!  I just can’t seem to stop writing, even though I had no plans to check in with all of you tonight.  But then I felt bad because I never told you that Ammie and I have decided to write our tandem blog posts every other week.  I didn’t want to disappoint you if you stopped by hoping for something new.  Ammie does have a lovely post about her adventures in seasonal eating, and I’m really excited to try the pasta recipe she shares at the end.  If I had an accurate to-do list, one of the items on there would be “eat more asparagus.”  On my wish list, I would write “eat more asparagus with Ammie.”

I am apparently a creature of habit, so here I am again.  Last Saturday, I missed my chance to tell you about some of the things that have caught my attention as of late, so I thought we could get caught up now.  I let out a big sigh of relief yesterday when I dropped my taxes in the mail.  Because I am stubborn and frugal, I do my own taxes every year, and every year, until they are done, I fret and worry about them, convinced I won’t be able to find my forms and that I’ll miss the deadline.  And every year they get done with only a little bit of sweat and blood.  Tonight I’m cheering for another season of tax purgatory completed.  I’m going to make a peanut butter malt to celebrate.

While we’re on the subject of money, I have a little bit of a secret to share with you.  I’m thinking about moving to Bryan, Texas, which is College Station’s next door neighbor.  Matt and I were in Bryan together this month, and I was reminded of how much I miss having a downtown within walking distance.  Now, Bryan’s downtown is not at all comparable to Chicago’s or even Evanston’s, but it’s about as close to a “downtown” as I’m going to get for now.  Bryan is a small town, with a small downtown.  I would love to purchase a condominium or a small house within a few blocks of the downtown area.  Then I could walk to the farmers’ market on Saturdays and enjoy the quirky shops and restaurants during my free time.  Moving to Bryan would require me to drive to work, which would in turn require 1) a driver’s license and 2) a car, but I’m feeling really excited about the idea.  I wouldn’t move until at least the spring of 2011, but I’m preparing myself for the idea of relocation. 

It’s funny how I can imagine purchasing a home next year, but I haven’t managed to purchase any furniture for my current home.  Every time I think about it, I feel my wallet clamp shut and I’m left with a vague sense of frustration, like something is happening here and I don’t understand it.  After some reflection, it occurred to me that my parents never bought new furniture for their house.  Everything we had was second-hand, found in a thrift store or dragged away from somebody’s curbside trash.  I think the one time they bought something new, it was a new bed, which I’m sure they needed desperately because my dad has a bad back.  My life now doesn’t resemble my parents’ life very much, but the extreme reluctance to buy new furniture is one of the few things that ties us together.  But here’s the thing: buying stuff I need makes me happy.  I remember buying my kitchen table and later, four chairs to go with it, and how I spent days admiring the smooth, caramel-colored wood and the inviting presence of a table surrounded by chairs.  I felt so grown-up, like I was really setting up a home, even though I’d been living in that apartment for close to a year.

Lately I’ve been drawn to articles about money and homemaking, perhaps as an attempt to understand my own conflicted feelings about money.  In a recent Self article, the author ponders what would happen if she just splurged on the thing she covets.  Would she be able to pay her bills?  Yes.  Would she still have meals on the table and gas in the car?  Yes.  Would she still have her home and retirement savings?  Yes.  So she’s forced to conclude that the sky would not collapse on her head if she bought a $4000 flat-screen tv, even if it does seem like a ridiculous and unnecessary luxury item.  As for me?  I’d love to feel the freedom to spend, say, a thousand bucks on furniture.  I could buy all sorts of things that I put off buying when I was a frugal graduate student.  A coffee table, lamps, end tables, nightstand, a new rug—nothing particularly extravagant and all things I would use every single day.  If that’s not an investment in happiness, then I don’t know what is.

Another article had me laughing out loud: “Conquer clutter!”  The author writes, “I hate to shop, so I've never bought little storage necessities such as shelving and, um, furniture.”  Hello, me too!  Or at best, I buy them as cheaply as possible so I don’t have to part with my hard-earned cash.  But this article offered a nugget of wisdom about organization, reminding me that order is about function, not fashion.  “’Organization is a feeling,’ Glovinsky says. ‘If you feel organized, you are. It's not about what anyone else thinks. It's all about the level of organization that makes you happy.’"  That made me feel much better.  I’m not disorganized; I’m just wearing my frugality like it’s never going out of style. 

With this business of making a home for myself, I feel like I’ve got my work cut out for me.  For energy, I’d better go drink that peanut butter malt before my blood sugar levels bottom out on me.  Until next time, friends!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Looser and More Relaxed


I think onions are really beautiful.  They’re sort of like the nerdy girls of the vegetable set: quirky, opinionated, open-minded.  They’re lovely to behold, with their smooth papery shells and shiny, almost translucent rings.  Like the nerdy girls, onions are hard to pin down.  In raw form, they are sharp, offensively so to some palates, but with heat, their sharpness mellows while their sweetness intensifies.  I always think of onions as savory, but theirs is a savory that mingles with sweet, a hybrid savoriness, if you will.

I love cooking with onions.  To me, the soup-making process officially begins when the chopped onions have been added to the pot.  The aroma of onions meeting hot fat marks the transition from puttering around in the kitchen to officially cooking something.  It’s an important moment.

Though I have been cooking with onions for years, learning to cook with them is an on-going process.  I realized how much I still want to learn from Matt, he of the wafer-thin salad onions and caramelized onion calzones.  Onions have interesting synergies with other ingredients; they do things that are both unexpected and delightful.  In these “aha!” moments, I long for the chance to take a cooking class where I get to learn all about one ingredient: onions one day, perhaps asparagus the next, oatmeal another time.  There is so much to learn.

For now, I’m content to putter around in my home kitchen, cookbooks pinned open and chopping block at the ready.  My approach is haphazard at best, trying and tweaking recipes until something tastes good and worthy of a repeat.  I’m no scientist in the kitchen, that’s for sure.  It’s more fun this way, looser and more relaxed.  And I’m still learning, despite ditching the scientific method and its rigid insistence on controls and reproducibility.

One person who I know would enthusiastically endorse my fun-not-formal approach to cooking is Rachael Ray.  Say what you will about this most (in)famous of celebrity (un)chefs, but I like Rachael Ray (in limited doses).  Her cookbooks are a treasure trove of good ideas, though sometimes I do wonder how many times her recipes are tested before they go to print.  In my years of tweaking recipes to fit my taste (meatless, lower fat, whole grain—the list goes on), Rachael Ray recipes tend to be hit or miss.  This is not the case with recipes from other sources—Orangette recipes, for example, are incredibly forgiving to tweaks, which I deeply appreciate.  Nigella Lawson recipes are also reliable for tweaking.  But Rachael’s are fickle in a way that I do not understand.  So when I flip through one of her cookbooks, it’s like rolling the dice.  Sometimes I get lucky.


Today’s recipe, a side dish of shallots and spinach cooked in garlic oil and white wine, is a winner.  It started as a slight obsession with a recipe for Warm Chopped Chicken Piccata Spinach Salad, a cooked spinach “salad” to which Rachael adds chopped chicken breasts and a roll for mopping up all the juices.  But all I wanted was the spinach part, a spinach saute with a pan sauce of olive oil, butter, white wine, and lemon juice.  It sounded refreshing and soothing, perky and pleasing all at once.  It also sounded like the sort of thing I could handle after a long day at work, and those recipes are always welcome in my kitchen.

My first attempt at it was not bad, but the lemon juice was too much.  It overwhelmed the other flavors.  So I tried again, skipping the lemon juice and relying instead on the flavor of the wine to add complexity.  This time, I got it right—the spinach was tender, infused with garlic and Riesling, with a sprinkling of salt to round out the flavors.  But while the spinach was good, the shallots were amazing, their oniony savor sweetly drenched with the flavors of wine and garlic.  To finish the dish, I topped it with a few toasted almond slivers, adding texture and some nuttiness.  The only trouble with this dish, as I see it, is that it may force me to visit the grocery store several times a week to buy more spinach—a sacrifice I’m willing to make for a delightful new recipe.

Sauteed Spinach with Shallots and White Wine

Adapted from Express Lane Meals by Rachael Ray

Serves 1-2 as a side dish

It is hard for me to be too specific with this recipe, as it’s the sort of thing that invites you to make it by feel, especially after you’ve tried it once and realized you’d like more garlic oil or less wine.  Please be my guest and tinker as you like.  Also, about those almonds: I am extremely greedy around toasted almond slivers and tend to pile them on without restraint.  If I was serving this to someone else, however, I’d probably use just one tablespoon of almonds for two servings.  So in the recipe, I offer you a range.

1-2 tbsp. slivered almonds

1/2 tbsp. garlic-infused olive oil

2 shallots, finely chopped

2-3 tbsp. white wine (I used a $10 grocery store Riesling here, which was quite tasty)

About 2.5 ounces prewashed baby spinach (about half of a 5-ounce container—4 or 5 generous handfuls)

Salt to taste

Black pepper to taste

1)  Heat the oven to 350 degrees F.  Place the almonds on a small baking sheet and toast for about 5 minutes.  Remove and set aside.

2)  Heat the garlic-infused oil over medium-high heat in a nonstick skillet.  Add the chopped shallots and saute for 2-3 minutes, until the shallots are softened, fragrant, and perhaps even a little browned.

3)  Add the wine to the shallots and let about half of it cook off—this will happen very fast.  Add half the spinach, stir it around a few times, and cover the pan.  Cook for a few minutes, then add the rest of the spinach, cover, and cook for another minute.

4)  At this point, you can serve it as is, or if you’d like a less juicy dish, let the wine and juices cook off more.  Season with salt (not too much) and maybe a tiny bit of black pepper.  Plate and top with the toasted almonds.  Serve.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Softer, More Comfortable

They Look Like Daisies

I’m not sure how to begin today, so I will let time be my guide and rewind a week to last Friday.  Matt’s visit was wonderful.  When it comes to him, I’m like a CD that keeps skipping: wonderful! wonderful! wonderful!  And it was, three times over.  There is something about his way that puts me at ease almost instantly, even when I’m feeling like a bundle of nerves, firing anxiously over his arrival.

I have never dated anyone for as long as Matt and I have been seeing each other—a few months shy of three years.  It’s kind of magical, being part of a relationship that has had some time to grow and shift.  Being with him no longer feels new and shiny.  We’ve weathered some difficult moments, most of them brought on by me.  I’ve forced us to navigate questions about dating other people and our level of commitment to each other.  We made it through a painful period of depression and anxiety during my final year of graduate school and not once did Matt tell me what to do, which was exactly the right thing for him to do.  We made it through huge career transitions for him, and he didn’t even yell at me even when I was being really annoying during his move halfway across the country.  (I have since learned my lesson.  I hope!)

For me, time has made our relationship softer, more comfortable.  I worry less and enjoy it more.  I feel goofier and more playful, but in some ways we’ve become more straightforward with each other.  Here’s an example: I had a Dave Matthews Band album in the CD player when he arrived for lunch on Friday, and as soon as we’d finished saying hello, he announced, “Ugh, I HATE Dave Matthews!”  This came from a man who hardly ever uses the word hate, so he wasn’t kiddin’ around.  And he said this to me, who has listened to her DMB albums so much they are part of the soundtrack of my history.  As a teenager, I first fell in love while a rotation of DMB albums grooved in the background.  And now the current love of my life announces that he hates them.  You know what I did?  Without skipping a beat, I offered to turn it off.  No arguing, no questions asked.  Just like that.  Because with Matt, that sort of thing doesn’t matter to me.  (Plus I know I’ll have complete control of the music as soon as he leaves.  Ha!)

We see each other once every three months.  You might think that we would both feel a lot of pressure to make our visits feel “special,” and sometimes that is true.  I want Matt to have a good time with me.  I worry that College Station lacks the energy and charm of Evanston and Chicago, but what we’ve lost in urban splendor, we’ve gained in other ways.  We went walking in three nice parks, Lick Creek Park, Bee Creek Park, and Lemon Tree Park, where we gazed at wildflowers and listened to birds twittering to each other.  We bought delicate lettuce at the farmers’ market and tasted samples of homemade salsa.  (I bought two jars!)  We visited “our” coffee shop and sipped coffee while sitting outside in the sun.  We sat out by the pool in our swimsuits and watched lizards challenge each other, heads nodding swiftly, throats swelling aggressively, bodies changing color like mood rings.  We had a fancy meal at Christopher’s World Grill and cheap Tex-Mex food at Rosa’s.

We did more walking than cooking and more talking than anything else.  Both of us have been incredibly busy with our jobs, so it was nice to let someone else feed us for a few meals.  And being outside with Matt, where we could talk about plants and trees, was restorative.

He left on Sunday, our plans to see each other in July floating in the air like fuzzy windborne seeds.  I cried a little bit, like I usually do.  Then I soothed myself with some retail therapy at Old Navy.  I even bought a pair of green shorts.  I can’t remember the last time I bought new shorts, but here in Texas, I think I’m going to need them.  Then I ignored the dirty sheets and dishes while I read my new book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, a book I can’t wait to use when I’m teaching undergraduates cell and molecular biology.  This book is science writing at its best and human arrogance at its worst.  It’s stunning.

My life goes on, with and without Matt.  But he has changed it, and I am as grateful for that as I am for his love.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Where the Stories Are

Science!  That’s what Ammie and I are writing about this week for our tandem posts.  I’m excited.  Hop on over to still life to read Ammie’s post here.

The Wisdom of Robert Frost

My favorite thing about science is the stories.  No matter how wacky our ideas about the natural world may be, science will surprise us with something even crazier.

As a working scientist, I find this to be a constant source of hilarity and frustration.  My motto inside the lab is this: Shit goes wrong all the time.  It’s my job to fix it and make it work.  I say this to myself because the vulgarity makes me laugh and then in the quiet moment afterward, I am reminded that things rarely go according to plan and this is okay.  It’s part of the scientific process.

I don’t love fixing things.  I tolerate it, and I’ve certainly become better at it as the years in the lab have grown longer.  But I love being part of a storymaking process.  I am one of a few people in the world who are witnessing the story that science is telling through my experiments.  It is an extraordinary feeling.  When I was an undergraduate and thinking very strongly about going to grad school in science, other students would groan and say, “Ugh, I hate lab!”  They were referring to the various lab exercises associated with our classes.  And the truth is that I hated lab too!  They were usually in the afternoon, when I was feeling lethargic after lunch and a full morning of classes.  The lab exercises tended to be stand-alone activities, something we were supposed to finish in three or four hours, then write up as a cute little lab report to turn in the next week.  There wasn’t much of a story to tell.

But I knew there had to be more to science than classroom-based lab exercises.  After all, there were thousands of stories tucked into all those expensive textbooks I had to buy, stories where the heroes didn’t know what they were going to get when they mixed this extract with that protein.  Then there are all those glorious stories about accidental discoveries, like ampicillin.

So I went off to grad school and it was hard.  My PhD training challenged me, humbled me, infuriated me, and ultimately fortified me, strengthening both my persistence and my belief in science.  It also let me be a part of some great stories, and that was the best part.

Now, as a postdoc in a lab that is new to me, I get to continue my scientific storytelling.  Science continues to challenge, humble, and infuriate me—it’s why I do a lot of yoga and focus so much on the wonderful things in my life outside the lab.  I can’t depend on science to keep me happy because it often disappoints me.  But in my calm, reflective moments, I feel very blessed to participate in such an enduring and respected institution that accepts all hypotheses with equal consideration.  I have always loved that science will take whatever you can throw at it, and in the end, the data must speak for themselves.

After the data collection, the scientific process is storytelling.  It was Matt who really taught me this basic fact about the way we talk about our science: we tell a story, using our data as the evidence to back up our claims.  The distinction between fiction and science is blurrier than I realized, which makes me think of science as a lump of clay that gets passed around a globe’s worth of researchers, each person leaving a thumbprint or smoothing out an unsightly blob that no one really liked in the first place.  And when doing science has fried my brain and I think that maybe I don’t really want to be a scientist any more, I remember all the stories with which science has amused and delighted me, and I hope that some day I’ll be able to write down all my stories and they will amuse and delight some future scientist.  Science is only as vibrant as the person doing the science…or the storyteller who shares the tale with us.

Brainiac Bookshelf

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Right Where It Belongs

First, please allow me to get an unpleasant truth out of the way.  Today I was going to tell you about biscuits.  But the biscuits didn’t hold up their end of the bargain.  They should have been fantastic: buttery biscuits studded with chunks of Parmesan cheese and laced with lemon and black pepper.  The idea of them was fantastic.  But the reality fell short of my biscuit dreams.  I’m not sure who’s to blame, me or the recipe, but together we were not a good couple.

The story is even more interesting.  The first time I made them, I halved the recipe to make just a handful of biscuits for myself, something to go along with my bowl of soup and a Twilight DVD.  But I forgot to halve the milk, and in one swift pour I shot right past biscuit dough into something that resembled muffin batter.  I cursed myself and panicked, and then I said, “What the hell,” and made muffins.  The timing was a little tricky, and I was convinced they’d be oozing raw batter on the inside.  But twenty-something minutes and a few toothpick pokes later and they were good.  Lemony, a little sweet, with a cakelike texture, they were worthy of seconds.  On the outer edges, the Parmesan had browned and crisped—delicious.  The only problem is that I haven’t repeated this experiment, so I can’t tell you how long to bake them nor what happens if you scale up to make enough for more than you and a DVD.

So no biscuits today.  How about a peanut butter malt instead?

Drink Me

Holy moly, this was all kinds of delicious.  It tasted exactly the way one might expect a peanut butter malt to taste.  I had no idea that peanut butter and malt powder got along so well!  This treat is sweet and rich, and as you can see above, nice and frothy after a good spin in the blender.  I think it’s a perfect dessert, though I can also see leaving out the extra sugar and making it a breakfast malt.  It would definitely make me happy to climb out of bed to face the day.  Nutritionally, I think it’s a perfectly respectable way to break the fast, between the protein from the peanut butter and milk and the brain-boosting carbs from all the ingredients.  It also stores well in the fridge, so you can make a batch at night and save part of it for the morning.  It loses some of that fun frothiness, but the flavor stays right where it belongs.

I like a no-fail recipe, and this one fits firmly into that category.  It makes up for the well-intentioned biscuits and lofty dreams of aiming higher in one’s kitchen.  Sometimes aiming higher really just means reaching up into the cabinet for the malt powder.  Happy blending, friends!

Peanut Butter Malt

From The Ultimate Peanut Butter Book by Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough 

Serves 1-2

2 cups milk (I used 1% cow’s milk here)

6 tbsp. malted milk powder

1/4 cup peanut butter (I used natural chunky peanut butter, though next time I’ll try to use smooth instead for a more drinkable texture.  The chunky was still very tasty though!)

1 tbsp. brown sugar

1 tsp. vanilla extract

1)  Place all the ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth.  Scrape down the sides as needed.  Pour into two glasses and serve, or pour into one glass and tuck the rest in a covered drink container and refrigerate it.

Friday, April 2, 2010

In Anticipation

Today my favorite carnivore will be joining me for a weekend of food and companionship.  I can’t wait.

I should probably be cooking lunch for the two of us right now, especially since Matt has a habit of showing up early, ever since we ditched plane tickets in favor of a more local arrangement.  That sleek black car of his gets him here awfully fast, which means that he may show up any minute and start sniffing around for lunch, which I promised him.  I love cooking for that man.

Table for Two

But I couldn’t resist the chance to say hello and wish you all a very Good Friday.  It’s not often that I have the opportunity to do that, but I’m taking a three-day weekend and right now I feel like I’ve got all the time in the world.  It’s a nice feeling.

In honor of spring and sunshine, I’ve got a great lunch planned for today.  Big bowls of mint-laced split pea soup, spears of fresh asparagus, roasted to savory perfection, and slices of fresh mozzarella, sprinkled with garlic oil and Aleppo pepper.  It’s a Matt-inspired lunch: simple, a little decadent, savory, fresh.  There’s no dessert because he has the most peculiar sweet tooth I’ve ever encountered—most of the time, it’s absent—so I don’t bother.  Between the two of us, I’m the one with the sweet tooth.  He’d rather have another slice of cheese than a sweet, so I’m hoping an entire ball of mozzarella is enough!

The Table is Set

My table and I are both decked out in pink and green, a pair of spring colors.  The clock is ticking and my soup pot is getting antsy to get things simmering.  My heart is pounding just a little harder than normal in anticipation of someone’s presence.  I am ready for him.

Poised and Ready

I’ll see you on Sunday, beautiful readers.  It’s going to be a good weekend!