Saturday, July 31, 2010

Cookies and Rocks

I’m marveling at the pleasures of home this morning: the whirring and gurgling of the dishwasher, the fuzzy carpet under my bare feet, the scents of coffee and soap lingering in the air, the whisper of breeze from the ceiling fan.  I’m unshowered and feeling deliciously lazy this morning, my hair is dirty and the weight of my glasses is making an indent on the bridge of my nose.  I rarely wear my glasses outside of the house, so the feeling of them on my face is a sort of early morning/late night pleasure.

It’s been a hard week, for reasons that I can’t discuss publicly because it’s not my story to tell.  Whenever I witness a personal tragedy, I am reminded of just how fragile and bittersweet this life is, how much beauty and pain, wonder and loss we can experience if we are open to it.  I don’t want you to worry, dear readers, but if it’s not too much to ask, if you wouldn’t mind asking for a miracle on my behalf, I would appreciate it.  There’s nothing wrong with me or my family, but I am finding little comfort in my own well-being.  No one ever said that life is fair, but sometimes there is absolutely no rhyme or reason to the bad things that come out of nowhere.  In my own bizarre agnostic way, I’m calling on the universe to correct this horrible mistake it has made.  It’s not too crazy to hope for a miracle, right?

Even in the face of tragedy, life goes on.  We eat, we sleep, we read blogs and check Facebook and spy on the new neighbors moving into the building.  We live our lives as best we can.  It’s always struck me as weird that the mundane exists side by side with unspeakable sadness.  But I think the mundane has the power to pull us through our tragedies.  Hunger reminds us to eat so that we may live.  Exhaustion reminds us to sleep so that we may wake up and be strong to face the next day.  And laughter reminds us that there is a life worth living, through the nightmare and beyond.

On that note, I want to play a game of carrot-and-stick, only instead of carrots and sticks, I thought I’d give out something more personal, like cookies for the good stuff, the fun stuff, and rocks for the bad stuff.  I love a nice list, don’t you?  It’s so orderly, which in itself is a comfort.  Let’s begin!

***Cookies to:  

* My newest favorite blog, What Would a Nerd Wear.  I love Tania’s site!  She’s a style blogger and Brit lit graduate student, and her fashion sense is a lot like mine, but she’s more stylish than me.  Her writing is fun and friendly, thoughtful, even hilarious sometimes.  I want her to be my blog friend.

* An instant pudding dessert made of almost all whole foods: a few spoonfuls of vanilla yogurt and a spoonful or two each of peanut butter and coconut butter.  A bit sweet, a bit rich, it’s a great summer dessert to follow a light meal, like a soup-and-sandwich combination or a big salad.  For the coconut butter, I am devoted to my jar of Artisana Organic Raw Coconut Butter.  That stuff is unbelievably good.  It’s a little expensive—I got my jar on sale for ten bucks and change—but it lasts a long time because I don’t eat much in one sitting.  I think of it as an investment!

* A new cookbook: Ani’s Raw Foods Essentials by Ani Phyo.  I haven’t bought a new cookbook in a very, very long time.  You could say I’ve been on a cookbook diet.  But I’ve been thinking about buying a raw food cookbook for a long time, and this one seemed like a good choice for a newbie like me.  Now, I don’t have any plans to become a raw foodist, but I want to learn some new tricks from a raw foods expert.  As a sign of my commitment, I bought some fresh Medjool dates at the store today, and I don’t even like dates very much!  But I’m ready to learn—let the lessons begin!

* The weather this week, which permitted me to run outside three times!  I was shocked and amazed and also very sweaty.  But still, it felt great to get off the treadmill for a few days.

And now, onto the second part of our game.

***Rocks to:  

* My new upstairs neighbors, whose late-night noise is keeping me from my beauty rest.  I want to yell at them, “Go to bed!  Or buy me some earplugs!”

* Me, for not paying attention.  All week I’ve had weird headaches and I’ve been straining to see things.  I am very near-sighted and must have vision correction at all times.  On Monday I put in a new pair of contact lenses, but it took me until Friday to figure out that I put the wrong lenses in each eye.  You see, my two eyes have different prescriptions because my left eye is worse than my right.  Last night, I switched the lenses and behold, headache gone!  Perfect vision!

* Neal D. Barnard, MD and Vegetarian Times for the worst answer ever to this question: Why go organic?  (Organic meaning organic foods, not organic chemistry.  Glad I’m long done with that second one!)

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, my personal belief is that organic produce is the healthier choice because I believe that pesticides and such are likely to be cancer-causing agents.  I cannot, however, cite the scientific studies that provide more solid evidence for my belief.  Because there are so many variables among human subjects, my hypothesis may be difficult to disprove conclusively.  I’m okay with that.  I still buy organic produce as much as I can.

I would have hoped that Dr. Barnard’s answer would shed some light on the demonstrable health dangers of ingesting pesticides and other chemicals.  Instead, the argument goes like this: chemicals are bad for you.  If you eat organic foods, you eat fewer chemicals.  Therefore, not eating organic foods is bad for you.  The problem with his answer, even if I believe his conclusion, is that it fails to tell me why these chemicals are bad for me.  Just because something seems like a bad idea does not make it so: eating bacteria, to me, sounds like a bad idea.  Bacteria can kill us.  But the bacteria found in things like yogurt are really good for our digestion and gut health.  Dr. Barnard’s answer strikes me as weirdly intuitive—he’s a doctor, for crying out loud!  Intuition is not the same thing as science.  Intuition is just a starting point for a hypothesis that must be tested and retested in such a way that it can be disproved.

If anyone cares to shed some light on this topic, please be my guest.  Hopefully your argument will be more convincing that Dr. Barnard’s!

That’s the end of my rant, and the end of cookies-and-rocks.  I hate to end on such a down note, so how about some green to spruce up this otherwise wordy post?  I took this picture over at my fountain, where lovely green plants are basking in the heat and the moisture.  I try to stop by the fountain a few times a week, just to check on the plants.

Looking Good Green Plants!

Have a happy green weekend, friends!  See you tomorrow, maybe with more green!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Sharp Knives and Kitchen Dreams

If you like vegetables and you like to cook, I’d say there are three things you absolutely need: a great knife, a nice cutting board, and a decent soup pot.

Now, what does it say about me that I failed to buy two out of those three things for myself?  I’d say it means I am too cheap for my own good.  Also, that I am very lucky to have someone in my life who gives me knives and wooden chopping blocks for my birthday.

Action Shot

I am so in love with everything in that picture up there, especially the hands.  I know they’re a little blurry because this is an action shot, but please, just look at that thumb!  Isn’t it great, holding the onion in place, keeping things moving along smoothly?  I have found the absolute best hand model, and, as if that weren’t enough, my hand model will cook for me upon request.  I feel all warm and flirty just thinking about it.

In what must have been an infatuation-induced spending spree, just a few months after we started seeing each other, Matt bought me three great knives from J.A. Henckels: a paring knife, a mid-sized all-purpose knife, and a huge chef’s knife.  He also bought me a snazzy and very sharp-toothed bread knife, as well as a parade of other kitchen goodies.  To be honest, I was overwhelmed by his generosity, even a little embarrassed.  Before him, I’d never dated anyone who was a really fantastic gift-giver, so I was blown away by his thoughtfulness.  I also, in the back of my mind, wondered if this was a little like giving himself a present—in the best way possible, of course.  We cooked so many things together during that New Year’s visit of his—soup and stew and roasted potatoes and tofu scramble.  We ate well, even though we spent most of our time on the couch while Matt nursed a cold and I kept him company.  The food made our time together brighter and cozier, as snow swirled in the frozen Chicago air outside my windows.  Given all the cooking we had done, I wondered if Matt was thinking he might cook in my kitchen again and therefore have the chance to put those sharp knives to good use.

If he had that thought, he was totally right.

Now that we’ve been together through several rounds of birthdays, I can’t imagine my kitchen without his influence.  It’s not really about the knives, per se, although they are very nice.  It’s about how Matt has taught me to value my own quality of life.  It was hard for me to think about this idea when I was still a PhD student.  I was just trying to get out of graduate school alive.  I considered it a victory that most nights I cooked a “real” dinner and not frozen pizza.  It was important to me to have what felt like a home life, something that existed independently of my academic life.  Cooking was, and still is, a huge part of that home life.  To imagine something beyond that was nearly impossible.  But with Matt, nothing is impossible.  It’s one of the reasons I adore him.

Matt and I have very different attitudes toward money.  The truth is that I want to be more like him.  He invests in his happiness.  I inherited my parents’ “just-getting-by” attitude.  At some point, though, just getting by starts to feel bleak.  To look into the future and realize that you can do things NOW to make things better for your future self—that’s dreaming, in the best way possible. 

I want to be a dreamer.  I already know that I’m a get-it-done kind of person, but a dreamer?  Who imagines big, beautiful, sparkling, happy dreams?  Even in a recession?  Yes, that’s who I want to be.  And yes, kitchen knives are an important part of dreaming, especially if your dreams take place inside a kitchen.  I know mine do—or at least some of them do.

To be continued… 

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Mezzetta Extra Virgin Italian Olive Oil

If you cook a lot and you like to cook with olive oil, I think it’s important to have a good workhorse of an oil in your pantry.  One that tastes good and makes food taste good.  An everyday kind of oil.  This oil shouldn’t be very expensive because everyday cooking should not be the kind that makes you wince and sigh and scowl as you imagine your bank account being drained by dinner.


Mezzetta Extra Virgin Italian Olive Oil could be your kitchen workhorse.  It’s very reasonably priced—I get mine for about eleven bucks a pint at Albertson’s, my neighborhood grocery store—but more importantly, Mezzetta’s oil is an excellent choice for cooking and baking.  On its own, this oil has a really fruity smell and the taste is pure grass.  In the mouth, it has a rich texture, but it’s not a flavor powerhouse.  What it does is a little more alchemical: it helps other foods taste more like themselves.  Salads taste greener and grassier, tomatoes taste fresher and sweeter, blueberry yogurt cakes taste like perfect baked treats.  It’s nice to have an olive oil that works well in both savory and sweet recipes.

Diligent olive oil tester that I am, I made Mezzetta’s oil jump through my various hoops for Project Olive Oil, but I did them all backwards, starting with dessert.  I loved this oil in a blueberry yogurt cake; it added a subtle note of green grassiness that complemented the sweeter flavors.  Mezzetta’s was delicious with tomatoes, whether in simple caprese form or a more elaborate Tomato Bread Salad.

The final taste test was today: a small plate of balsamic vinegar and olive oil, a few slices of great bread for dipping.  I always think of this test as the simplest of all: three ingredients and maybe, maybe a touch of salt if needed.  If I may be completely honest with you, dear reader, I will confess that I expected Mezzetta to fail this test.  It is not a powerhouse olive oil; I wouldn’t even think of giving someone a bottle of this as a gift.  (And yes, I am now in the habit of gifting olive oil.)  I believed that the vinegar-and-oil test would separate the truly outstanding oils from the workhorses.

Then I tried Mezzetta, and I cleaned my plate.  I was so wrong.  It was awesome.

What I have come to believe now is that when it comes to food and flavor, nothing is simple.  There are dozens of variables that can alter what we experience when we taste something: soil, climate, the rainfall during that growing season, the storage/processing/shipping conditions—and that’s the short list.  The food we see when we sit down at the table is the product of interconnected processes.  Even the simplest, humblest foods seem miraculous when viewed this way.

Mezzetta’s Extra Virgin Italian Olive Oil, a grocery store staple and resident in my pantry, is exactly what I wanted to discover when I started Project Olive Oil.  Combine good-quality ingredients with this oil and you will feed yourself, your family, and anyone at your table delicious food.  At the end of the day, that’s what matters most to me.

On the Counter

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Saturday, with Water Lilies and Kitchen Agenda


Whew, that was a close one, but I made it to Saturday.  What a long week!  It was a very productive week in the lab, though I think it was the kind of productivity that looks more like two steps forward, one step back.  Ah, experiments!  If it weren’t for weekends, I’d have to throw in the towel on this way of life.

But thankfully, there are weekends, and this one is going to be good.  I can just feel it.  I’m of two minds about my weekending.  One very tempting idea is to be as lazy as possible, leaving the couch only for snacks and drinks.  I’ve got my old copy of Walden to keep me entertained; my Book Club is reading Thoreau and I haven’t even started my assignment yet!  But one cannot read Walden in a hurry any more than one can read poetry without time to linger over the words.  These things must not be rushed.

Just the idea of being lazy this weekend makes me feel better.  But then I think about all the delicious things I could make this weekend and my belly gets really excited about all the cooking and baking we could do.  I’ve got my eye on Shauna’s new granola recipe, and I’m planning to make a big pot of vegetable soup tonight.  There’s a loaf of sourdough bread on the counter, melon in the fridge, and bars of chocolate in the cupboard.  Oh, and a new block of my favorite cheese.  I like to keep a well-stocked kitchen.

I’ve been riding my bike a lot lately.  I should clarify that “my bike” isn’t really my bike; it’s a bike that a kind friend loaned to me.  This kind friend also made me the most amazing Indian food on Thursday night.  The food was so good that instead of having dessert, I had seconds.  I dream about being able to make food like that.  Anyway, with my borrowed bike I’ve been riding all over town for errands and for fun.  I love seeing the dusky Texas sky overhead as I pedal forward.  In the evenings, with a gentle breeze on my skin, this Texas summer is pleasant.  It’s still awfully hot every day as long as the sun is shining, but the evenings here are kind of magical.  I want to remember them when the sun disappears at 5 PM and the land feels dark and grey to me, even if it isn’t cold.

I’m off to fix some lunch and bake some Walnut Wafers.  Have a groovy weekend, friends!

Me Again

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Letter to a Friend, with Lemon Butter Cookies

Dear Ammie,

By now, you must be in Germany, trotting around the music festival, viola strapped to your back.  It’s funny to imagine you so far away.  You are an ocean away from me, but it feels more like a world away.

My excitement for this trip of yours is unmatched.  What an adventure!  I’ve never been to Europe.  I am afraid to be so far away from home.  Someday, perhaps, I’ll be ready to visit that foreign continent with its centuries of history and food and architecture and language.  Germany is high on my list of countries to visit, as it is part of my ancestry and I studied its language for four years in high school.  I feel connected with Germany.  Also, I hear they are very friendly to tourists and they want their guests to have a wonderful time in Deutschland.  This reputation is in contrast to what I hear about France, where they hate their tourists and would really prefer if you just stayed in your own country—and sent them your money anyway.  Now, these nasty rumors may not be true at all—maybe the French will love me!—but I’d have to confirm them in person to be sure.  Based on this logic, I think that I’ll have to visit Germany and France during my first trip to the Old World.  

Leaving your everyday life for a few weeks opened up an expanse of time for you that was unparalleled in recent months.  I hope that you are finding yourself charmed by this experience of living without your daily grind.  I know it can be unnerving to not have your routine to keep you feeling solid and safe, but it can also be so liberating and powerful.  Sometimes I dream about those days without routine, days when I don’t have the commute and the work and the packed lunch and the daily annoyances that irritate me, despite my best efforts to not let them bother me.  I dream about floating through my day, moving from one beautiful place to the next, stopping to refuel with food and drink as necessary.  Of course, in my fantasy, all the food is wonderful and the people friendly and the floating feels magical.  In reality, sometimes when I have too little to do, I feel lost, like I’m drifting and no one is around to hear my cries of loneliness.  It’s the double-edged sword of being an independent woman, a freedom that seems limitless but is capable of slicing away at you as you struggle to find your sense of security.

All of this is to say that sometimes it’s good to travel and other times it’s good to put down some roots.  You’ve been putting down your roots in Chicago for a long time now!  That our Chicago experiences happened to overlap is a coincidence that makes me so grateful for mutual friends and what I can only call luck.  So many times have I been astonished to find us navigating through the same murky emotional landscapes; being able to talk to you about scary, ugly truths has been like having a hand to hold in the dark.  I always say that I like a little hand-holding; I think this world is sharp and cruel enough as it is.  I don’t think I believe in tough love.  Maybe I’m not as jaded as everyone thinks I am!

Things are going well for me these days.  My grueling presentation at work went well, I think, though I was totally exhausted afterward.  I expected that, so I figured that I would not get much done for the rest of the day.  I’ve noticed that lately, when I give talks, my voice always seems to give out after about five minutes, which concerns me.  How am I going to teach hour-long lectures if I can’t get past my opening slides?  Maybe I need hot tea or lemon water with honey to keep my throat silky smooth?

I’ve been a total bookworm lately, devouring books with a ravenous appetite.  I finished The Devil in the White City!  I’m so glad I gave that book a second try; it was absolutely worth it once I was absorbed into 1893 Chicago and all the glamour of the Gilded Age.  Matt has recommended another Gilded Age book to me, The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, filled with New Yorkers who are climbing the social ladder.  I’ve got to ride my bike over to the library to find a copy.  I love a good library.  In the meantime, I’m rereading The Awakening by Kate Chopin (more nineteenth century, please!) about a married woman in New Orleans who “awakens” to her desires for freedom.  I want to visit the Crescent City again, and now that I’m living in Texas, it’s not far away.

When I’m reading, I love a mug of tea and a plate of cookies.  Snacks make everything better, don’t you think?  I made some lemon butter cookies recently that reminded me a lot of you, though I’m not quite sure why.  I think they remind me of the cookies with apricots and fresh thyme.  Both recipes make refrigerator cookies, the kind where you shape the dough into logs, wrap it in plastic wrap, and then refrigerate for a while.  Then, using a sharp knife, you slice the dough into rounds and bake them until they turn golden and fragrant in the hot cave of the oven.  Do you remember the night we made the apricot cookies?  What other cookie did we make that night?  That was a very fun, very cookie-filled night, though I seem to remember little else other than the cookies and my cozy kitchen with you standing at the counter.

I must confess that I was not very brave when I made the lemon butter cookies.  You see, the recipe called for adding chopped fresh rosemary to the dough.  Rosemary!  In cookies!  It’s so wild!  I really hemmed and hawed about the rosemary.  I used to think that I didn’t like that pungent, piney herb.  It’s so strong, almost overbearing, that I thought it best if I just stayed away from it.  Slowly, with effort on both our parts, I’ve learned to appreciate rosemary.  A little goes a long way, so I use a light hand with it.  I do love your white bean soup with fresh rosemary—that soup’s going on my list of fall things to cook.  Ooh la la.

But back to the cookies.  Even without the rosemary, they are quite lovely.  They’re rather delicate, with a soft, almost sandy crumb that melts on the tongue.  They’ve got a bit of sparkle on top from the hippie sugar in which you press the unbaked cookie rounds.  That sparkle is very important, and not just because it looks pretty: these cookies are barely sweet, and the sparkly topcoat is what makes the difference between what could be a lemon butter cracker and a lemon butter cookie.  I even made a few without the extra sugar, and they weren’t as good, so don’t skip the hippie sugar!


If you were in my neighborhood, I’d tell you to hop on your bike and I’ll brew us a pot of tea.  I’d set out a plate of these cookies, and we’d have a little tea party while sharing the latest news with each other.  Doesn’t that sound nice?  But my goodness, our neighborhoods are very far apart, and though your legs are strong, I just don’t think you’ll be able to bike down here before the tea gets cold.  So instead, I shall wish you a safe, happy, and wonderful time in Europe, and I’ll look forward to the next time we meet over a plate of fresh cookies.

Much love,


Lemon Butter Cookies

Adapted from Vegetarian Times

Makes about 30 cookies

These cookies may seem understated upon first bite, but they are very sly and soon you’ll be telling yourself that you’ll just have one more cookie—after all, they’re so small!  One more cookie is just another bite or two.  And it’s true: these are bite-sized little tea cookies, subtle but deliciously so.  I love them for an after-dinner dessert, preferably with a mug of tea.  I think they’re even better the second day, when the lemon flavor becomes more pronounced.  The dough also keeps well in the fridge for at least a week if it’s tightly wrapped.

One more thing: when slicing the dough into cookie rounds, be sure to use a very sharp knife, such as a paring knife.  The dough sort of flops over if you try to use a butter knife, but a paring knife will slice clean through and give you perfect little rounds.

1/2 cup (1 stick or 4 ounces) butter, softened

1/4 cup sugar

1 tsp. freshly chopped rosemary, optional (if you try it, let me know what you think!)

1/2 tsp. finely grated lemon zest

2 egg yolks

1 tsp. vanilla extract

1 cup flour

1/3 cup corn flour (Bob’s Red Mill sells this in 24-oz. bags; I found mine at my neighborhood Albertson’s—nothing too fancy)

1 1/2 tsp. baking powder

1/4 tsp. salt

1/2 cup turbinado or hippie sugar, for decorating (you may not use a full 1/2 cup—I didn’t)

Cookie spray

1)  Beat the butter, sugar, rosemary if using, and lemon zest with a mixer for 3 minutes or until creamy.  Beat in the egg yolks and vanilla.

2)  In a bowl, stir together the flours, baking powder, and salt.  Add them to the butter mixture and mix until just combined.

3)  Divide the dough in half.  Shape each half into a log about 1 inch wide.  Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2 hours.

4)  Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.  Spray a baking sheet with cooking spray.  Using a very sharp knife, such as a paring knife, slice the dough into 1/3-inch rounds.  Dip each round in the turbinado or hippie sugar to give each cookie a sparkly coat.  Place the rounds, sugared side up, on the baking sheet, and bake for 15 minutes or until golden brown on the bottoms.

5)  Allow cookies to cool for a minute or two on the sheet, then remove them to wire racks to cool completely.  The cookies are quite delicate when they first come out of the oven, so handle them gently.  Serve to good friends with hot tea and plenty of stories to tell.

Saved for Later

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Science Sunday

Food with a Side of Data

Oh, goodness, friends.  I am knee-deep in other people’s data today, trying to muck my way through putting together a presentation for work tomorrow.  The topic of the presentation is interesting: obesity and fat regulation in fruit flies, which, before last week, I knew nothing about.  Now I know a teeny-tiny bit, but still, I am overwhelmed with just two papers to read and understand.

Actually, that’s not true.  Understanding them is not the problem.  My real concern is that there is no way I can present these papers without using cheat sheets to remind me what’s what.  My memory alone will not be sufficient, hence the mucking through things.  The powerpoint presentation is filled with notes to help me remember things more easily, but holy moly there’s a lot to know.  I am way outside of my comfort zone here.

I had planned to tell you about a lemon butter cookie today.  It’s a good one too, topped with sparkly sugar, and when you eat it, it melts softly in your mouth with a rush of lemon and sweetness.  I’m excited to share it with you, and I’ve got something fun to accompany the recipe.  But I need time, and today I’m overwhelmed with work.  Our lemon butter cookies will have to wait, but I hope to share them with you later this week.

Despite the work, it hasn’t been a bad weekend.  Last night I fell in love with a very cute sweater at Kohl’s—short sleeves with a sort of fisherman’s net thing going on.  It also has big buttons.  I bought one for a friend’s birthday present, but now I think I must return to buy one for myself.  Also, I found some great stuff on sale at Brazos Natural Foods: a pint of heavy cream for 99 cents, a big bottle of Organic Valley’s pourable yogurt, also for 99 cents—both steals!  One of these days I’m going to make homemade caramel sauce with my heavy cream stash.  Everything is better with caramel sauce.

I also bought some beautiful peaches, which, coincidentally, match my shirt.

Lovely Peach 

Despite the pile of work on my plate today, I’m feeling happy and mellow.  Maybe it’s the jazz playing over the speakers at It’s a Grind, where I sit, typing away.  Maybe it’s the pretty fountain, sending up its cascades of bubbly water outside the coffeeshop.  Or maybe it’s just Sunday, a day to relax and regroup for the week ahead.  Sundays are made for daydreams and long walks, staring at fountains and catching up with friends.  I hope to get a little bit of all those things into my Sunday, in between the papers and the powerpoint.

I hope your weekend is wonderful!  See you later this week.

Friday, July 16, 2010

At the Grocery Store, in the Mailbox

Howdy, friends!  Now that we’ve gotten my love life straightened out, we can get back to more important things, like food and shopping. 

When it comes to grocery shopping, I run hot and cold.  Sometimes I love it; sometimes it feels like such a chore.  Like most things in my life, if I feel like I’m doing it for fun, then I love it.  If it feels necessary and unavoidable, I am much less enthusiastic about it.  Maybe that’s how I feel about all shopping?  I remember shopping for a pair of black high-heeled shoes for job interviews last summer.  I did it totally on a whim.  I was at work, presumably doing something that needed to get done, when I just decided to leave and go to the mall.  I’d been feeling anxious about putting together my interview outfits, and I knew I needed new shoes—classy, dressy ones with no open toes and preferably ones that wouldn’t kill my feet after an hour.  I ended up at Nine West, taking footware advice from a friendly older woman, and even though the shopping was necessary, it was pretty fun.  I think the part where I skipped work was the best.  Remember when I confessed that I’m not a fun girl?  I think that may be changing.  I’ll have to tell you more later, in a future post.

On a fun whim the other day at the grocery store, I decided to take a chance.  I plunked a half-gallon of original flavor Silk PureAlmond almond milk in my cart, and since then, it’s become one of my weekly pick-ups at the store.  It seems like the universe has been trying to nudge me toward almond milk for a while, but I haven’t been listening.  My sister-in-law makes her own, using dates as a sweetener, and when I was staying at Daphna and Ian’s in May, Daphna’s mom used it in her coffee, and so I did too.  Almond milk, I don’t know what took me so long, but I’m glad we found each other!

A Morning Companion

Silk’s PureAlmond is really great stuff.  It has a sweet, vaguely nutty flavor, with just a hint of almonds.  The texture is a little creamy but not palate-coating.  I use it all the time in overnight oatmeal.  One of the odd things about this almond milk is that it tastes sweeter than cow’s milk to me, even though cup for cup, it has half as much sugar (7 g versus 12 g in 2% cow’s milk).  I even did a side-by-side tasting to test my impression, and the almond milk was noticeably sweeter.  By comparison, dairy milk had a cleaner taste, like you’d want in a good palate-cleanser.  Except for taste tests, I don’t drink milk straight any more, but if I were a milk-and-cookies kinda girl, I’d prefer dairy milk with sweets.

Almond milk has even made its way into my morning cup of coffee.  My new formula is 1 tablespoon each of almond milk and heavy cream and 1 tsp. sugar, either hippie sugar or vanilla-infused granulated sugar.  The combination is subtly sweet and creamy enough to make the morning coffee feel like a treat.  I deserve a reward for getting out of bed, especially on the mornings when I have to go to work.

Spoons Welcome

Speaking of mornings, peanut butter is a steady morning companion of mine.  I take my peanut butter very, very seriously, so it was with some anxiety that, when offered the chance to try a new-to-me brand, I accepted the offer.  The company, via its generous correspondent, Nanette, went a little overboard and sent me four big jars of peanut butter—that’s four pounds of peanut butter, all for me!  Yikes.  The peanut butter had the unfortunate experience of sitting in a very hot Texas mailbox for nine days while I was off roaming the streets of Chicago, but upon opening the first jar, it tasted perfectly fresh to me.  I immediately tucked them all into the fridge, just to be on the safe side.

The company who made this donation to my belly is Krema Products and Crazy Richard’s of Dublin, Ohio.  They sell peanut butter under both brand names, but as I understand it, the product is the same.  It’s good stuff, this Krema/Crazy Richard’s peanut butter.  Made of only peanuts, this nut butter has a wonderfully pure flavor, just the essence of peanut butter.  So far, I’ve eaten most of two jars, the Krema chunky peanut butter and the Crazy Richard’s smooth peanut butter.  I love the Krema as a dip with raw carrot sticks.  I wasn’t quite as wild about Crazy Richard’s, until I did a little bit of detective work and uncovered a piece of utterly obvious wisdom about peanut butter: you can add things to it.  Uh, yeah!  It was forehead-smackingly obvious, yet I needed someone else to point it out to me (thanks, Nick!).  I decided that what Crazy Richard’s needed was some added complexity in the form of salt and sugar.  Working off of Nick’s recommendations, I started adding a teaspoon of salt and a tablespoon of sugar to an open jar.  I tasted the peanut butter after adding most of the salt and sugar, only to find out that the salt was too much.  I added a bit more sugar, hoped for the best, and tasted.  Nope.  Still too salty.  Until I tried it on my morning oatmeal the next day, where suddenly the saltiness was delicious!  That extra bit of salt made the whole bowl taste better, sweeter and more vibrant.  This incident is, to me, yet another illustration of how one must overseason condiments in order to make them perfectly seasoned with other foods.  For example, I wouldn’t slurp soy sauce by itself, but I love it on rice and vegetables, or sprinkled on salads, or stirred into soups.  Peanut butter can definitely be a condiment, in which case extra salt can be a flavor booster.

Fresh from Rosa's

This last one’s for locals only.  Long-distance readers, you’ll have to find your own tortillas.  Just down the street from me is Rosa’s, a restaurant that sells cheap, tasty Tex-Mex food and freshly made tortillas.  It even calls itself a tortilla factory, which I find rather charming.  It’s a place where Matt and I usually have lunch when he’s visiting me, and my only regret about his visit last weekend is that we didn’t make time for Rosa’s—so sad!  To make up for it, I sauntered over there this evening to pick up a few tortillas for dinner.  It was very tempting to just stay at Rosa’s, especially when I remembered how much I love their guacamole, but I wanted to cook tonight.  Maybe next week I’ll go to Rosa’s for dinner.

Rosa’s flour tortillas are the best.  They are doughy and a little thick, and with an application of butter and/or olive oil, they crisp up nicely in a hot skillet.  I first had them as part of a quesadilla meal that Matt made back in January.  I still dream about those quesadillas, filled with sautéed onions and bell peppers and so much cheese!  We ate them with salsa, of course, and this salad that blew my mind with its garlicky, salty, almost pickle-like radishes and bitter greens and fresh pears.  One day I will figure out how to make those radishes, and it will be a very good day.

Tonight I was inspired to make quesadillas, using the bits and bobs waiting patiently in my refrigerator: onions and peppers, leftover tofu scramble, shredded cheese.  I put on my Hootie & the Blowfish album* and listened to long-forgotten but much-loved songs while I pushed vegetables around a skillet and buzzed fresh melon and white wine in the blender to make something cold and fruity to sip.  Then I sat down to eat my homemade meal.  The quesadillas were hot and crispy, the boozy cocktail cold and refreshing.  It was a very good dinner, from start to finish.  I was pleased.

But next week I’m eating at Rosa’s.

*Don’t judge.  I like Hootie.  I’m not ashamed.  Plus their Musical Chairs album is lovely, so sweet and sad.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Practice Love

He left a few hours ago, but I can still hear Matt’s voice echoing in my ears.  I love the sound of his voice, but this quiet moment, in which I am trying to gather my thoughts, is pretty nice too.

Matt arrived on Friday afternoon, and we spent the weekend trying to reconnect with each other after three months apart and a conversation in which we were so close to breaking up that afterward, I felt like we had broken up.  I even had a break-up hangover the next day—not the kind induced by alcohol, but rather by heartache and agonizing indecision.  It’s not surprising that seeing him this weekend felt different, because it was different.  How much of that difference would turn out to be transient, and how much would become permanent?  The only way to find out was to try, once again, to love him.  It was time to practice love.

For all the magic and mystery that we attach to love, it seems to me that it’s a lot like any other human endeavor.  We aren’t born knowing how to do it very well.  If we’re lucky, we’ll find good teachers along the way, people who show us what love looks like in action.  It’s romantic to idealize love, but if you don’t know what to do with it when the wheels fall off, you are in deep trouble.  I think it’s no coincidence that, of the people I know who are enormously happy in their relationships, most of them have made huge mistakes in love, bad decisions that resulted in divorce and massive upheaval.  But they weren’t afraid to try again, and, hopefully, do it better this time.  I admire their resilience.

What does it mean to “practice love?”  To me, it means embracing the idea that love is messy and imperfect.  It’s scary, because to love someone is to allow ourselves to be vulnerable to rejection and disappointment.  When Matt arrived on Friday, I could feel both of us hanging back a bit, watching the other person, trying to find our footing after a rocky patch of uncertainty.  I was quiet and subdued.  Matt felt distant to me, even though he was so close I could reach out and touch him.  But I decided not to worry about this.  Before his visit, we had made up over the phone, and I thought that we had resolved any lingering doubts about what we were to each other.  I had said everything I wanted to say, so when he was finally in the same room with me, and I could feel hesitation hanging around us like smoke, I decided to believe that with time, the smoke would clear and we’d find the love between us.

That belief was an act of faith, and it worked.  What also worked was doing stuff together, the same kinds of things that had brought us together in the first place, cooking and eating and enjoying each other’s company over glasses of wine.  Romance often carries with it huge expectations for physical and emotional intimacy, but friendship does not.  Friendship is granted a wider latitude, which is probably one of the reasons that friendships usually have a longer shelf life than romances.  I loved and trusted Matt as a friend before we became more than friends.  Our romance may have felt tentative and delicate, but our friendship did not.  It felt solid—solid enough to help us find our way back to romance.

Way before the wheels came off, I had planned a few surprises for Matt’s birthday this month.  One of those surprises was dinner at Veritas, a wine bar and bistro in my neighborhood.  We’d talked about going a number of times, and I thought it would be fun to surprise him with a dinner reservation.  So on Friday night, we walked over to Veritas, underneath a cloud-strewn sky at dusk.  Inside, we were seated at a windowside table for two.  Matt took full advantage of the wine list and the option to order half-glasses, and we were able to sample five different wines over the course of a single meal.  We drank half-glasses of two white wines, which Matt called “cheap wines,” but I heard as “sheep’s wines,” resulting in confusion and laughter.  We tried two Pinot Noirs, and I learned that I really like Pinot Noirs, especially ones with a balance of fruity, herbal flavors and some tannins.  I see more Pinot Noirs in our future.  We also shared a half-bottle of red, a house blend of sorts, I think, which was also quite nice.  I was pretty charmed by the whole parade of wines that made their way to our table.  The food at Veritas was great, too—cold and tangy gazpacho, salmon ceviche, seared duck breast (which Matt was kind enough to let me try), an outrageously good risotto made with savory, meaty shiitake mushrooms and a pile of vegetables.  The whole experience was really lovely and easy—Veritas took such good care of us, even fixing me that risotto as a vegetarian entree by special request.  It was a special evening, and its timing could not have been better.  I think we needed it.

The next day, we focused our attention on meals made by our own hands.  In the morning, we braved the heat and humidity to visit the farmers’ market in Bryan, where we found baskets of fresh okra, fuzzy peaches, fat carrots and yellow squash, and the best find of the day, fresh figs.  We were really lucky to find the figs because Matt had been sighing over his memory of this roasted fig thing he makes, where the figs are drizzled with honey and balsamic vinegar, then roasted until they soften and wilt under the heat, and the sugars start to caramelize.  Then some sort of cheese (more about that in a moment) is just barely heated on the hot roasting pan and placed on top of the figs.  Served as an appetizer, each bite-sized morsel is a marvelous combination of textures: meltingly tender fig, oozing sweetness, and chewy, salty cheese.  Matt’s roasted figs were addictively good—now I get what all the sighing was about.

Spooning the Figs

For the cheese, we used Brun-uusto, a baked cheese that is usually served hot off a grill, melty and a little charred.  I don’t particularly like this cheese on its own if it’s not grilled, but when just barely warmed and sitting atop a syrupy, roasted fig, it was very, very good.  And as Matt mentioned when he was assembling things, the saltiness of this cheese is perfect with the figs.

After the figs were devoured, we put together a tag-team-effort entree: a dish I’ve come to think of as “Matt’s okra” and an off-the-cuff version of baked eggs in which the eggs are baked between layers of salsa-spiked cornbread crumbs, and the whole thing is topped with some tangy shredded cheese.  Matt makes his okra dish a little different every time I request it.  The base is always the same: a big handful of really fresh okra and a pile of thinly sliced onions.  The seasonings are Indian; this time, he made friends with the cardamom and popped open half a dozen pods to add to a skillet of oil-slicked vegetables.  Alongside the cardamom appeared cumin, curry powder, cinnamon, salt, and probably black pepper.  The cooking process is a cross between sautéing and slow-cooking.  By the time Matt declares the dish ready to eat, the onions have melted and the okra has just a little bit of snap left in it.  The leftovers are fabulous too.

Man Knife Vegetables

After our dinner of roasted figs and cheese, spicy okra, and hearty baked eggs, we sat on the couch, drinking wine, talking, laughing, and touching, until my eyelids grew heavy and I began sinking into sleep, Matt’s voice still telling stories on the other end of the couch.  I didn’t want the evening to end, but I could only hold off sleep long enough to say good-night and crawl into bed.  I was full—of food, of wine, of laughter, and most of all, of the connection between me and this man who feeds me, inspires me, and loves me.

I went broke believing that the simple should be hard,” sings Matt Nathanson in “All We Are.”  Perhaps this is the danger with love.  My Matt (who is not Matt Nathanson) tells me that love is simple—it’s other things that are hard.  I don’t know.  What I do know is that when Mr. Nathanson sings, “In the end, the words won’t matter.  Cause in the end, nothing stays the same,” he is right.  Nothing, not even love, stays the same, but if we’re lucky and if we keep practicing love, our love can grow with us.  That’s what I want.  I think in those moments of uncertainty, we’re trying to figure out if our love is going to grow with us, opening up like a flower, or if it has died on the vine.  Only time can reveal the answer, but in the meantime, I think a few great meals can’t hurt.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Choose Love

You can’t just sit around, saving your heart for some perfect idea of a man who is never gonna come along.  Life is too damn short!”  Sookie Stackhouse, True Blood (Season 2)

Some of us fall in love with vampires.  Others fall in love with guys who can’t stop moving.  In my case, I fell for a guy who is a perpetual motion machine, always traveling and working and making his mark on the world.

I spent a long time alone before Matt and I started dating.  I went two entire years without a single date, let alone a boyfriend, after I was dumped by the guy who preceded Matt.  I know what it’s like to be alone.  I also know what it’s like to date someone who is not a very good match for me.  My ex is a good person, a smart man, but I felt like I was starved for affection and warmth when I was with him.  I kept waiting for him to love me more and better, but it never happened.  He ended things, and I will always be grateful to him that he did.  It turned out to be the nicest thing he ever did for me.  He set me free.  He opened up space in my life for someone new, and by the end of that same year, I had met Matt.

By now, you’ve probably figured out that Matt and I have an unusual arrangement.  We live in different cities and visit each other about once every three months.  It’s been this way since we started dating.  The schedule is not ideal for me; in fact, I don’t really like it.  I want to see him more often, but apart from asking for that and/or making ultimatums, there isn’t much I can do.  I have asked and now I have made my decision to accept that this limitation is part of the package of being with Matt.

Why, oh why would I choose love with this man who chooses his work over almost everything else?  My answers are many.  Matt is what I would call an interesting person.  I like interesting men—I always have.  I can’t help it.  He’s smart and funny and kind and unconventional.  He is caring and empathetic, and when he’s around, I feel more loved than I’ve ever felt in my whole life.  I feel radiant with love and so alive.  (I often feel tipsy too, but I don’t think that’s Matt.  I’m pretty sure it’s the wine.)  Matt and I can talk about anything and everything.  We had great talks before we started dating, but intimacy has made them even better.  It’s opened new topics to us and guided us into deeper into familiar territory.  My physical attraction to him grew out of a love for his mind and his heart.  His body is very nice too, but it was a side benefit compared to how I felt about his intangible qualities.  To fall in love with someone before you ever kiss is an amazing, transformative experience.  And in hindsight, I do believe it was love.  It was more than a crush, and it wasn’t really lust.  It was bigger and deeper than either of those things.  Kissing him was like sealing the deal on something that was already unfolding, even when I tried to ignore it.

One of the things that I appreciate about Matt is that he’s very good at love.  He isn’t perfect, but he’s very good.  He’s also very patient and not easily ruffled, which is why, when I had a meltdown last month, he didn’t melt.  He stayed cool as a cucumber.  Which is not to say that he felt nothing, but in a very Matt-like act of grace, he let me be, to figure out how I felt about us and where I wanted to go and if I wanted change.

In that time and space, the answers revealed themselves the way Texas wildflowers suddenly dot the landscape in the spring.  Everything was underground, germinating, hidden, and then POP!  My biggest revelation was not that I loved him and wanted to be with him, in whatever time we might have together, but that I could just ask for more time.  The clincher was this: we would still be okay even if our schedule didn’t change.  I would still love him and want to be with him.  I’m not sure I’ve ever asked a boyfriend for something that felt so uncertain.  I felt like if I was going to ask for something like time, which I know is a precious commodity to Matt, I had to be willing to put some sort of ultimatum on the table: we have to see each other at least every other month…OR ELSE!  I don’t like ultimatums, but I felt trapped until I realized that asking could be enough.  Just put it out there, I told myself.  Put it out there and let it be known and then let it be.  Let it go.  So that’s what I did, and it felt wonderful.  I am happy and at peace with my decision, and in the end, that’s what matters most.

Upon further reflection, I also realized that I had made a major mistake, which was this: I thought that Matt wasn’t “there” for me just because we’re almost always apart and he is often hundreds of miles away.  But I cannot remember the last time that he didn’t call me back within a day of my calling him.  That’s how he is there for me.  I even do this terrible thing where I call and I don’t leave a message, but he calls me back anyway because he’s nice to me.  Then I get to hear his voice and it feels like all is right with the world.  Most days, that feels like enough.  As you can imagine, I felt awful when I realized how little credit I had given Matt for his commitment to us, but because he is kind, he didn’t get angry or defensive.  He let it go.  By doing that, and a thousand other tiny things, he teaches me how to love gracefully.  It’s hard to ask for more than that.

This weekend we’ll get to see each other again.  I can’t wait.  No, I have been waiting, since April in fact, so I think I can wait another two days.  The waiting does make our visits feel romantic and special, and the fact that we’ve got a birthday to celebrate is making me feel giddy.  I am way too excited about Matt’s presents, which are tied to our history and the things we love.  But mostly I’m just so happy that I get to celebrate this birthday with him—it’s a big one, dear reader—and that we’re going to cook together again.  I once wrote to Matt, “Being with you is about tasting and touching and taking deep breaths and laughing.  It's about taking walks and cooking together.”  Kissing and touching and whatnot are very nice, but after all this time, I think it’s the cooking together that seals the deal for me.  It helped seal the deal the first time too.  But if I don’t have to choose, if I can have all of it, I’ll take it.  Love is large; it contains multitudes.*

Sunshine Breaks Through

 *Thanks to Matt, from whom I shamelessly stole this line.  But he borrowed it from Walt Whitman, who I think would approve of the paraphrasing from his famous poem.

* * *

I’ll be a little preoccupied this weekend with my houseguest, so don’t be alarmed when this space is silent on Saturday.  I’m sure I’ll have something to share with you next week, but I’m not sure when.  In the meantime, enjoy your summer, dear reader, and take good care of yourself.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Controversy, with a Sweet Ending

Today I’d like to discuss a topic that can be controversial: wet bread.  It doesn’t sound appetizing, does it?  It sounds like an accident, like you were caught in a horrible rainstorm on the way home from the grocery store and your fresh bakery bread, which happened to be sitting at the top of the grocery bag, turned into a sponge.  Just the words “wet bread” make me feel a little queasy.

It’s no wonder, then, that there are people who shun the entire category of things that might be called wet bread.  My friend Andy is one of these people.  Last time I checked, he ate his breakfast cereal without milk.  That’s pretty extreme, but I get it.  It’s fair to assume that he also avoids common wet bread experiences like dipping bread in soup and the general category of things known as bread puddings.  Wet bread is everywhere, people, and one needs to be vigilant about these things.  Sometimes it even shows up on your kitchen table.

Golden Bread and Black Bananas

Which brings me to my next scary topic of the day: black bananas.  Yikes!  Even scarier is the fact that they are nestled next to cubes of bread that soaked up a sweetened, almond-scented custard to make a banana bread pudding that was the tastiest thing to come out of my kitchen last week.  Don’t be frightened, dear readers.  This dish may sport black bananas and wet bread, but sometimes, ugly food is the most delicious.

I had no plans to make this dish.  It just happened.  Last Sunday, I came home from the coffeeshop in the mood for French toast.  I found my bread knife and a stale loaf of ciabatta.  I began slicing the bread into thick pieces, perfect for crispy-creamy hunks of French toast, and the bread shattered on me.  As I sliced, the bread gave way into irregular chunks and shards, sending bread crumbs flying everywhere.  I’ve never seen anything like it before.  The bread was so dry that it literally fell apart on me, crumbling in fear before the sharp-edged teeth of the bread knife.  French toast was, quite clearly, out of the question.

Well.  Regular French toast was out of the question.  But baked French toast is much less demanding of bread and of the cook.  I don’t give up easily, but I wasn’t sure exactly how to rescue this situation, so I pulled out a known source of baked French toast advice, my copy of Sunlight Cafe, and turned straight to the chapter on “puddings & custards.”  Note that I did not turn to the chapter on “griddle foods: pancakes, waffles, blintzes, crepes, & french toast.”  Because what I call baked French toast, Mollie Katzen calls bread pudding.  We’ll have to set up some sort of voting system to break this stalemate.

In her book, Mollie has no fewer than four bread puddings, but my kitchen was only prepared ingredient-wise to handle one of these options, and even then, I did a tiny bit of recipe alteration.  [As an aside, I want to emphasize that I really am trying my best to follow recipes these days, mostly as an exercise to see what I can learn from other people’s instructions.  But it’s hard!  I want to play!  I don’t want to follow rules!  Wah!  Can I have some cheese with my whine?]  The banana bread pudding recipe calls for nothing too exotic—just the usual suspects that hang out in my kitchen.  Bread.  Bananas.  Eggs.  Milk.  Brown sugar.  And a few goodies from the spice rack, including almond extract, which turned out to be the key ingredient.  The recipe doesn’t call for much, but it adds so much flavor.  Do not leave out the almond extract.

So, once the question of what to make was settled, I measured and stirred and chopped and slid a glass pan full of unbaked French toast into the oven.  Then I talked to my three-year-old niece, who sounds impossibly grown-up now and tells me that no, really, she cannot wait to see me.  And I tried to explain again that we’ve only got to wait a few more months and then I’ll see her just in time for her birthday.  I’m afraid it wasn’t good enough for her, and frankly, it didn’t feel good enough to me either.  Long-distance aunthood is not easy.

Luckily, my baked banana French toast/banana bread pudding finished baking just in time for me to distract myself from my melancholy, and I sliced myself a nice big square.  It was so good, with its sweet black banana pieces and almond-scented, custard-soaked bread cubes, that I almost had a second helping right there on the spot.  It would have been so greedy of me, and so right.  Instead, I had another piece as dessert after dinner and it was just as good as the first one. 

Don't Be Scared    

Now it’s your turn.  Don’t be afraid of the black bananas and wet bread.  The bananas turn dark in the oven because their sugar begins to caramelize during the baking.  They taste much better than they look, their banana-ness sweetened and intensified.  But I can’t help you with the wet bread issue.  You either like these sorts of things or you don’t.  It’s that simple.

Banana Bread Pudding or Baked Banana French Toast

Adapted from Mollie Katzen’s Sunlight Cafe

Serves 4-6

This dish is best eaten within two days of making it.  I found that it keeps well for the first few days, but by day 3 it isn’t nearly as good.  (But that didn’t stop me from eating it…)  Also, Mollie suggests serving this bread pudding with lime wedges for squeezing over it, saying that it adds “sparkle.”  I didn’t have limes, so I tried a lemon wedge instead, which was okay.  My favorite condiment for this is a big spoonful of plain yogurt.  I like the tangy creaminess of it on top of the sweet bread and bananas.

Cooking spray

2 cups of stale bread cubes, preferably from a loaf of ciabatta or something similar

1 1/2 medium-sized ripe bananas, peeled

2 large eggs

2 cups milk

1/8 tsp. salt

1/4 cup packed brown sugar

3/4 tsp. vanilla extract

1/8 tsp. almond extract

A pinch of nutmeg

Yogurt, for serving

1)  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F (325 F if you are using a glass pan).  Spray an 8x8-inch pan with cooking spray.

2)  Spread the bread cubes in the prepared pan.  Chop the bananas into bite-sized rounds and tuck them among the bread pieces. 

3)  In a mixing bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk, salt, sugar, extracts, and nutmeg.  When the mixture is smooth, pour it over the bread and bananas, moving the bread around a bit as needed to let the custard soak into it.  Let everything sit for about 5 minutes.

4)  Bake for 35-40 minutes or until the custard is just about set.  Remove from the oven and let it cool in its pan on a cooling rack for about 15 minutes.  This step gives the custard time to finish setting.

5)  Serve warm or at room temperature with a big spoonful of yogurt if you like.  Or try Mollie’s suggestion for lime wedges and see what you think!

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Where Chicago and Texas Meet

Hi, friends!

I’m okay.  Hurricane Alex has come and gone, leaving in his wake cool weather and breezy rain.  The sky remains flat and grey, with gauzy white clouds stretched across.  It’s a quiet Saturday morning, and if I listen hard, I can hear birds chirping and the gentle whoosh of cars passing by outside.  This weekend thing is always really nice.

My quiet weekend started last night, when I came home from work feeling vaguely ill.  It started after lunch, and for a while, I blamed it on the Greek Iced Coffee I had with lunch, thinking that it was just a weird caffeine headache.  But then my throat started to itch, and my neck was tight and achy, and I felt so very tired.  By the time I realized it was more than a headache, I was almost done with my work for the day, so I finished up, went home, and bonded with my couch.

It’s funny how being sick, or even just mildly ill, gives us permission to enter a slothlike state.  But it’s nice when you aren’t sick enough to feel like you are really suffering—it’s that just-right spot where you feel totally entitled to spend the evening reading a good book, feet up, water glass filled and at the ready.  I know that if I’d had plans last night, I would have pushed myself to follow through with them, but not having plans turned out to be a blessing.

The lazy evening started with a book set in Chicago, The Devil in the White City by Eric Larson.  My friend Nicole gave me this book a few years ago for my birthday, but in my first reading attempt, I couldn’t quite get into it.  It’s a serious, intense book about Chicago, the 1893 World’s Fair, an architect, and a serial killer.  I think it was a little too serious and intense for me the first time I started reading it—there was too much heavy stuff in my real life for this book to be an escape.  But now, especially because Chicago is no longer home to me, this book feels like a snapshot of history from a place that I love.  Now, reading it feels like a treat.

The cool weather and rain outside made the evening feel unusually Chicago-like.  It was a neat effect, feeling like my old home had, in its way, wrapped itself around my new home.  It wasn’t that I literally felt like I was in Chicago; instead it was more like I was reminded of Chicago over and over again, and in my mind, those memories transported me to quiet evenings spent in a little apartment in Evanston, where I would often lay on the couch, feet propped up, reading a good book and letting the day gently fade to darkness outside my window.

Even dinner reminded me of Chicago.  To fit my slothlike state, I made a simple dinner of baked eggs (yes, again!) and stir-fried cabbage.  The cabbage dish was noteworthy: half a head of cabbage, sliced into thin strips and then stir-fried over high heat and doused with hot sauce and soy sauce.  I admit, cooking over high heat scares the bejebus out of me, and my cabbage burned and blackened in spots.  But ooh, those blackened pieces added this wonderful charred flavor—just a bit—and the final dish tasted earthy and sweet and fresh and salty.  What was really interesting is that even the cabbage reminded me of Chicago, which was kind of odd until I remembered the Chinese restaurant just a few blocks from where I used to live.  I often took long walks around my neighborhood—it was such a great neighborhood for walking—and when I would pass by the restaurant, the air was always perfumed with soy sauce and the smell of fried foods.  It was the same aroma of the cabbage dish.  That memory makes me like it even more.

A book and baked eggs and stir-fried cabbage would have been more than enough for a good evening, but then my friend Ammie called from Chicago and I felt warm and safe in the mutual affection of our friendship.  She’s so insanely busy right now that I wish I could give her some of my time, just a few hours to relax and maybe cook a good meal, but alas, time is not the sort of thing one can package into a pretty little box and mail off to Chicago.  Still, it was so good to hear her voice and her excitement about an upcoming trip to Germany.  And I got to tell her that all is well here and I’m continuing to think deeply about how to manage the inevitable disappointments that accompany life in a research lab.  I like to think that my moments of failure offer the greatest learning opportunities, though mostly I’d rather punch those failures in the face than learn from them.  But I try.

Happy weekend, friends, and happy Independence Day.  As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “We must be our own before we can be another’s.”  But I think that the real trick is building a life where we can be our own person and find connections with others.  That’s the sweet spot.

A Chicago Morning in Andersonville

[I took the photo above while I was walking through Andersonville, one of my favorite Chicago neighborhoods.  I love the light in this photo, and the grey sky is just pure Chicago to me.]