Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Two-Parter: Refilling the Well and What 2011 Taught Me

Snowy Michigan Morning

I’m curled up on the couch, with Iron and Wine on the stereo and a blanket over my legs.  I have to say, it’s pretty nice to fly home on a Thursday, go to work on Friday, then have the weekend to work and putter at home.  Today I shopped for groceries, baked banana bread, caught up on my blog reading, and spent some time working on a grant.  And by “working,” I mean largely pondering some questions, but now I’ve downloaded some new papers, so I’m going to settle into my couch with a slice of banana bread and read after I finish this blog post.

It’s nice to be home.  But I think it was even better not being home.  Even if it means living out of a suitcase for a week, I feel better that I was able to see my family this month.  I feel a lot calmer and less overwhelmed by my life, and that’s a feeling I’d like to carry with me into January.  There’s something about spending time with kids that feels so grounding and so right, like I’m doing exactly what I should be doing.

Being with my family is always an opportunity to refill the well, so to speak, a chance to share new thing with each other.  On my happy list tonight is: 

* This Week in Paleo/Latest in Paleo podcasts.  My sister-in-law Amanda mentioned to me that she listens to a Paleo podcast while working in the kitchen.  She warned me that it’s not very vegetarian-friendly, but still, when I got back to Texas, I had to look it up.  I like the Paleo podcasts hosted by Angelo Coppola because there’s lots of interesting discussion about the science of health, nutrition, and fitness.  It’s my kind of science talk!  Angelo is skeptical but open-minded, and when it comes to how science really works, he knows his stuff.

* New boots for Christmas.  I’ve needed new boots for a long time now, so I was thrilled to find a beautiful pair from Santa!  And by Santa, I mean my family.  Same thing, right?

* My sister’s awesome gluten-free pumpkin chocolate chip muffins, which she makes with my niece (who loves to bake with us).  Theresa made mini versions of these for our Christmas brunch, and they were outstanding.

* * *

I am really glad that 2011 is coming to a close.  It’s tempting to say that it’s been a shitty year for me, but I recognize that 2011 had a lot of great adventures and successes too.  Let’s say that 2011 has been a hard year.  I like the metaphorical fresh start that 2012 is bringing, but I’ve been thinking about what 2011 taught me.

I learned that living a thousand miles from my family is not a viable long-term condition for me.  I have to move closer to them, preferably within the next 2-3 years.  I’m defining “closer” as a four-hour drive, but Amanda reminded me that Chicago is such a cool city that it would be acceptable too.  So maybe I’ll move back to Chicago if I can find a job?  Or I’ll look for jobs in the Midwest and see what gems I find.

I learned that despite the supposed biological clock ticking in my ovaries, I am in no rush to have children.  I feel as picky as ever about the men I date, and for that, I am grateful.

I learned that I am stronger than I realized.  I’m in it for the long haul, even if I flounder sometimes.

I learned that I care more about relationships than anything else.  Not just romantic relationships, all kinds of relationships: familial, friendly, professional.

I learned that I’m not very competitive any more.  I feel much more motivated by the idea of working as a team, to make us the best we can be.  I’m not entirely sure what this means for me professionally, but I’m excited to explore it.

I learned that hope can make all things possible.  So I’m taking hope with me into 2012. 

Plane Wing and Sunset Over Middle America

Happy 2012, my dears.  Thanks for sticking with me this year, for all your comments, your wisdom, your advice, and your companionship.  Truly, this is the year that I learned the value of community in blogging, and I can’t wait to spend another year with you.  Happy, happy new year.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Field Notes from Michigan

 Devin on his Tractor

Lydia and Mommy Digging for Bones

Deer Sighting on a Snowy Morning

Devin in Christmas Box

Kiddos in Matching Christmas Pajamas

Seven days in Michigan, during which time there was…

* impromptu ice-skating with my five-year-old niece and her daddy.

* pan-fried Halloumi cheese.  Crispy, chewy, perfect.

* a 13-month-old who decided that it was time for him to start walking…

* (…but we still heard plenty of thud-thud-thudding as Devin hustled his way around the house on all fours.)

* crustless pumpkin pie, a holiday staple in our family.  Both the kiddos approved.  The big people did too.

* a visit from Santa Claus, who brought plenty of paleontology gifts for Lydia, the aspiring bone-digger, and lots of blocks for Devin, whose curiosity knows no limits.

* a Christmas brunch, with all the best breakfast foods: frittata, extra-creamy hashed brown casserole, bacon, pancakes, fruit, and coffee spiked with Irish cream for the grown-ups.

* a pizza dinner out with an old friend, with lots of laughing and remembering the days when we were so young and hopeful.

* rambunctious games of tag, with a toy goose whose feet went fwap-fwap-fwap on the wooden floors, a Lydia who giggled the whole time, and a Devin who hustled after his big sister with remarkable speed.

* an easy morning spent with friends and their adorable small children.

* a backyard deer-spotting!

* …and on the eighth day, there was a long day of travel, with one delayed plane, cold leftovers (the Indian food was better than the pizza), some Christmas chocolate, and the achy feeling of leaving my family.  But I’m pretty sure it was worth it, for all the fun, cheese, love, and memories.  Next time I’m in Michigan, there won’t be snow on the ground and there might even be sandals on my feet, but I’m glad that every year ends with a wintry Michigan and a chance to hit the pause button.  2012, I’m almost ready to welcome you.  It’s been a hard, long year, but I’d like to think that 2011 is ending a high note.

Lydia on the Couch

Monday, December 19, 2011

On Writing and Keeping the Faith

 These days, I like to start my posts with something pretty or calming, such as this palm tree.

Palm Tree

This post has nothing to do with palm trees, but I feel better if I can look at a palm tree.  Don’t you?  It’s like we’re on a tropical vacation!  (Please ignore the grey sky behind the palm tree.)  If you want to complement the effect with a cocktail, I recommend this fruity, rummy drinkYum. 

I know that several of you fancy yourselves writers, as do I.  Writing is very much on my mind these days because I am facing the daunting task of writing two grants and one manuscript in the next six months.  That’s a lot of writing of the science variety, and I’m more than a little nervous of how I am going to get all that writing done while still doing experiments and basic self-maintenance, such as getting dressed every day.  But mostly I’ve been thinking about how it is that we, as writers, make something out of nothing, or at least we make something out of a box of random bits and bobs.  Whatever gadgets and gizmos that inspire us, we throw in the box.  And then we start thinking: how do all these weird pieces fit together?  What is the thread that connects these items in a way that would make you say, “Aha!  Now I know what that box is for!”

For me right now, it’s mostly a matter of staring at the box (er, my computer screen) and plenty of time spent not staring at the box.  I’ve always been the kind of person who does her best thinking while doing something that doesn’t look like work: chopping onions, jogging in the park, laying in bed and trying to fall asleep.  When I sit down at the computer, I’ve already written half of what I’m going to say.  But what I find really exciting is that I don’t know the other half of what I’m going to say—that’s when the magic happens.  That’s when I feel like I am really, truly writing—spinning something from nothing.  It’s exciting!  In those moments, I can’t believe that I’m getting paid to do this.  I have to do a lot of work before I can sit down to write something—and I have to chop a lot of onions—but for a few precious moments, I am getting paid to write.  And that’s pretty awesome.

This month, I’m going to Michigan to see my family for the holidays.  I’ll be gone longer than I would have planned, had it not been such a headache to book my flights out of Texas.  While I’m on “vacation,” it’s going to be a bit of a working vacation because I’ll be trying to make some headway on a grant proposal that’s due in February.  And you know what?  I’m looking forward to it!  I love seeing my family and I love that we’ll have lots of time for morning coffee drinking, ice skating, holiday baking, shopping, and general merrymaking, but it’s also good to take a break from all that togetherness.  I live alone, and it can be hard for us hermits to spend days and days with other people without taking a break.  My goal is to spend at least two mornings or afternoons at Panera, working on the grant.  I figure if I can get 4-6 hours of good, deep-thinking work done on this proposal, then I’ll be in good shape when I come back to Texas and we’re really under a deadline to crank this thing out.

I’m grateful that writing projects are portable in a way that my experimental work is not.  I won’t be dragging flies or video cameras with me to Michigan, which might freak out the security people at the airport.  Instead, I’m taking just my computer, and no one will bat an eye at my Dell.  Most importantly, I’m trying to be as upbeat and positive about these writing projects as I can.  We may not have a very good chance at getting one or both of these grants funded, but like I said to my boss the other day, if we don’t apply, we have a 100% chance of not getting funding.

The other thing that I am reminding myself these days is that no matter what happens in the next 6-12 months, I am going to learn a lot.  And that is a very good thing.  It’s the same thing I told myself in graduate school when I was applying for a grant, and in the end, that situation worked out quite nicely.  So I’m going to keep the faith and believe that in 2012, things will work out.  I don’t know all the details, but I’m going to keep the faith.  Even scientists need faith in something, even if it’s something as ambiguous as the Universe and Its mysterious ways…

Writing friends, how do you keep the faith during the more ambiguous parts of your process?  How do you stay calm when your work is giving you reason to freak out?

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Perfect Holiday Reading

Bus Reading

My lovely sister gave me this terrific little book for my birthday.  I mentioned The Indian Grocery Store Demystified in my Splendid Table post a few months ago, and the book does not disappoint.  It’s perfect for geeking out over ingredients and tantalizing descriptions of Indian goodies.  Take, for example, this passage about yogurt:

“Yogurt enrichens and thickens sauces, acts as a tenderizer in marinades, is used in creamy dips, or is folded into cooked rice.

“Dehin is a thick yogurt cheese made by straining off the whey in a cloth-lined colander in the refrigerator overnight.  This is used to make shirkhand, a dessert that is blended with sugar, saffron, and rose essence and sprinkled with chopped nuts.  Similar to sour cream, dehin can be flavored with spices as a dip.  Kharis are smooth, yogurt-based sauces and soups.  Pachadi are yogurt salads that are similar to raita but have grated coconut added.  Mishti doi is the Bengali delicacy of sweetened yogurt set in clay pots and served at the end of a meal.”

Shall I go on?  How about a quick description of one of my favorite spices, cardamom?

“The flavor of cardamom is sweet and zesty with a hint of eucalyptus.  For subtle flavor the whole pods are added to rice pualos, simmered dishes, puddings, and sugar syrups.  It is best to lightly bruise whole pods first so that their fragrance will permeate the dish.”

Maybe you are in the mood for a sweet:

“Mysore pak.  A famous South Indian sweet, this is a rich, melt-in-your-mouth, chickpea-flour shortbread.  It is made by slowly adding roasted chickpea flour into a buttery, cardamom-infused sugar syrup, then stirring it constantly until it froths.  The yellow-ochre mixture is cooled and cut into thick squares.  It has a silky-smooth surface, a melting texture, and a rich, buttery, toffee flavor.  It is usually garnished with sliced almonds.”

Yum.  Mysore pak, you had me at toffee.  But what if I’m in the mood for cheesecake?

“Kalakand.  This is Indian cheesecake.  Creamy bars or diamond shapes are made from a condensed, boiled mixture of chenna cheese, ghee, milk, sugar, ground almonds, and pistachios flavored with cardamom.  The cream-colored treat tastes like a cheesecake brownie with a dense, fudgy texture.”

Oh baby.  A cheesecake brownies with cardamom and pistachios?  Now that I might have to try to recreate at home as an American knockoff.  We can do it!

I really could go on and on, but I probably shouldn’t quote the entire book in a blog post.  Suffice to say that this book satisfies a deep craving for delicious food prose and a sense of the exotic.  I feel transported to a place I’ve never been.  And I think sometimes, when we read, that’s exactly what we want: to feel lifted out of our everyday lives and deposited somewhere new and exciting, where our only task is to taste and sniff and explore.

Will I ever visit India?  Maybe someday, when I am brave and rich enough to buy that plane ticket.  Until then, I’ve got a kitchen and a tiny Indian grocery store near me and an appetite big enough to keep things interesting.   

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

On the Internet, Everyone is a Scientist

Two things are worrying me these days.

Thing the first.  I worry that “friends with benefits” has ruined dating.  I’m not a fan of friends with benefits as a way of interacting with men.  I realize that FWB is all the rage among the college set these days, and I’d guess that even when I was in college, it was popular, which would explain why I was not the most popular girl on campus.  It’s okay—the college kids can have their FWB.  But what about us older folks who actually want to date?  As in go out with someone, have fun, get to know that person, maybe hold hands if everybody is feeling romantic?  I fear that dating is a lost art, that men don’t know how to court a woman without assuming they are in a relationship.  I had a good discussion about this with a colleague today, and he and I agreed that even among people for whom life partnership is the goal of dating, it’s important to get to know someone before making assumptions about the nature of the relationship.  I’m not explicitly on the market for a life partner, but I would like to date, should I be fortunate enough to meet a nice man.  I’m just afraid that even if I do meet a nice man, he will be so clueless about how to court me that I will throw up my hands in frustration and decide that being a spinster is easier than dating.

Take a lesson from the fruit flies, gentleman: you’ve got to court her before you make any lusty moves.  Flies who try to skip the steps of courtship are met with a very firm NO in the form of a kick in the head.

Thing the second.  I’m doing research these days for my grant application(s), and I’d really like to find some scientific studies that link dieting to sexual dysfunction in women.  My search is turning out to be more difficult than I had hoped, but it’s especially frustrating when I run into articles like this piece from “FOXSexpert” Dr. Yvonne K. Fullbright.  The article, which is along the lines of what I’m hoping to find, is filled with scientific claims about what happens to a woman’s libido when she loses too much weight, but where are the damn references?!?  That popular news piece does me absolutely no good without references, and frankly, I find it rather presumptuous of her to tell a story like that with almost no citations to back up her claims.

The reason that the article bothers me so much is that I think a woman’s libido may shut down far earlier than the point at which she stops menstruating or displays a severe loss of body fat.  For me, the whole point of combing the science archives and googling things like “nutrition and sexual dysfunction” is to find a few studies that might back me up here.  But Dr. Yvonne K. Fullbright, you are no help to me.  No reviewer who is evaluating my work is going to let me cite a FOXSexpert article as evidence.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Is This Thing On?

Hello?  Is anybody out there?  Do I still have any readers left after my inexplicable silence?

Actually, I have a really good explanation: everything fell apart.  And by “everything,” I mean my computer fell apart and I’ve spent way too much time over the past week trying to restore its health.  But I do believe that tonight, with the installation of over 60 Windows Updates and finally, FINALLY, rebuilding my “blogging office” (also known as Windows Live Writer), I feel like order has been restored in my virtual world.

Hi!  It’s good to be back.  I have missed you and this blog.  I say that in all seriousness: one of the most frustrating things of the past week has been the loss of my writing routine.  I write for all kinds of reasons: to share, to take notes, to ponder, even to grieve.  I think out loud on this blog.  I make sense of my world.  And it’s been tough not having that outlet, even just for a week, because I had so much to say.  Now, after spending hours and hours saving my files, reinstalling the operating system, and installing hundreds—yes, literally hundreds—of updates, I’m just tired.

For tonight, let me say I’m sorry to have disappeared with no warning.  I really did miss you.  And for tonight, I’ll leave it at that.  I’m going to watch Grey’s Anatomy while eating a cranberry-chocolate bar and sipping herbal tea.

Ah, home sweet home.

Monday, December 5, 2011


I wouldn’t say that I’m feeling especially certain or confident these days.  I do feel certain that everything is going to be all right, if I can just be patient.  And this feeling of mine was echoed in a note from the Universe, who said it so charmingly that I wanted to share:

Have you noticed, how lacking clarity is clarity itself?
How, if you aren't sure about something, that alone has meaning?
Honor uncertainty. It's the seed from which
all-knowingness comes.
Give it time.
The Universe
I'm not sure, but I think you needed that.

Yes, as a matter of fact, I did need that! 

I found the Universe’s notepad via an old post of Chrissy’s, whose blog is always worth perusing.  I don’t know what’s going to happen next around here, but the Universe says knowing that I don’t know is something.  And even chaos, uncertainty, blurriness—these things can be beautiful because they shake you and wake you and make it possible for you to say things you didn’t know you needed to say and do things that perhaps you haven’t done because they weren’t “important” enough to do right away.

I’m embracing the chaos, even as I try to create some order around me.  Eventually, the path will become clearer, but for now, we are meandering together.

Blurry but Beautiful

Sunday, December 4, 2011

And So It Starts

Scenes from a Saturday…

Computer and Coffee Cup


Soup and Bread

I started writing my paper on Saturday.  Writing a science paper is like being in labor for months, or at least it feels like it to me, a woman who has never been in labor with a child.  (Perhaps the mothers in the audience will forgive my use of this metaphor.)  It requires a lot of patience, attention, deep breaths, and tolerance for uncertainty.  Will you find the right words to describe your results eloquently?  Can you craft an introduction that is at once snappy, interesting, and accurate?  Can you inject some provocative speculation into the discussion without making the reviewers go berserk?  It’s all very exciting, the craft of writing.  A science paper is simultaneously fiction and nonfiction: it’s a set of data, edited and parsed for presentation, told as a story.  Turning science into a story makes it a work of fiction because the process of doing science is never as clean as it appears in publications.

And yet, I do love to write.  Even the messy, stop-and-start process of writing a science paper delights my word-loving heart.  Even knowing that my paper will get shredded by my advisor, reviewers, and any readers I can rope into reading it* doesn’t subtract from the joy of getting to write professionally, even if it’s on the weekend.  I could feel myself hesitating to start writing this paper, but I feel really good now that I’ve started.  My goal is to submit the paper by the end of February 2012, which means my advisor needs a draft a few weeks before that, which means I’ll be writing the paper and finishing(?) experiments in January.  Which is, um, next month, in case you were curious.  Wow.  When I put it like that, it kinda freaks me out.

But I’m going to take the writing section by section, and I’ll take the data figure by figure.  I’ll write a shitty first draft, if I must.  And I’ll make myself a really good lunch because writing, as you know, is hard work.  It’s important to keep ourselves well-fed while we create something from nothing.

Have a good week, my dears.

* Want to be one of my readers?  Yes?  Seriously?!?  Hurray!  Let me know in the comments or send me an e-mail at lifeloveandfood [at] gmail [dot] com, and I’ll send you the manuscript when it’s ready for readers.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

When It Rains…

…it pours, right?  Too many things are going wrong in my life at one time!  Today I felt like if one more thing went wrong, I might be reduced to tears and forced to go home and hide in my bed.

But not everything is wrong around here.  Like this beautiful candlelight, for example.

December Candlelight

And those sweet little kids in the photos behind the candle.  The baby, my nephew Devin, turned one on Monday.  I can’t wait to see both of them in a few weeks.

But this week, this very week, has been less than awesome.  Normally, when I write an Up/Down (+/-) list, I start with the good stuff and then I don’t have much to say for the bad stuff.  This week is different.  For example:

* My kitchen has ants.  ANTS!  Normally I’m pretty relaxed about bugs, but not this time.  They showed up on Thanksgiving, I think, and I’ve been smooshing them ever since.  And I find them cuddled together in an ant-mass in the strangest places: under a sponge, in my coffeepot.  Yes, IN MY COFFEEPOT.  It was so gross but also fascinating, as far as animal behavior goes.  It made me think of the aggregation pheromone that fruit flies release, which helps other fruit flies find them.  I wondered if ants might do the same thing, and a colleague at work confirmed that ants do release an aggregation pheromone.  Fascinating!  That explains why I found hundreds of them in and crawling on my coffeepot.

Animal behavior aside, I’m so tired of the ants.  I hope the pest control people are able to take care of this problem because I am seriously outnumbered by the ants.  Damn exponential insect reproduction.

* My computer has a trojan, which is mostly just a pain in the butt: unwanted popups, computer freezing, slow processing time.  But I’m worried it could destroy my machine, so I consulted a tech-savvy friend, who recommended Sophos/Webroot (thanks, Andy).  Wish me luck as I attempt to heal my pathogen-ridden computer.

* And then of course, there is the on-going stress of trying to cope with work and planning for an uncertain future.  I’m so happy tomorrow is Friday and I’m working at home this weekend.  At least I get the luxury of my couch while analyzing data or writing my paper!

Whew!  That’s my Down list, and while it’s only three items, they’ve been sucking the joy out of my life.  But today, while feeling grumpy about everything that’s going wrong, I forced myself to think of some good things, something worth remembering, such as:

* A colleague lending me his super-sharp forceps for my dissections.  Good tools make lab life so much easier!  I even managed not to damage his forceps, which is kind of amazing because I am a klutz.  Matt can confirm this for you—but I think he’s lucky I haven’t accidentally given him a black eye.

* Rediscovering Monna McDiarmid’s blog.  I “met” Monna a few years back and have perused her blog occasionally ever since.  She and her partner recently moved from Bangkok to Japan, so her blog has been ripe with new Japan moments and some nostalgia for Bangkok.  Here are two posts I especially like: Preparing for the Flood and Dreaming of R&R in Bangkok.

* “Winterizing” my summer dresses from Five Bamboo.  I wish I had a photo of my outfit from today, but let’s just say that a cowl-necked top is a sundress’s best friend in winter.  Its pretty color and lovely layers add interest and warmth to sleeveless dresses.  (If you’re curious, the cowl-necked top I wear all the time is shown here.  It’s useful for hiding, turtle-like, on especially bad days.)

* Gillian Welch.  Matt introduced me to this amazing musician, and bless his heart for it.  I’ve been listening to her newest CD, The Harrow & the Harvest, at home—it’s haunting and beautiful and dark and honest.  You can listen to the whole album here.

* And finally, tomorrow is Friday.  Can I get a hell yeah?  I thought so.

Happy weekend, dear readers.  I hope to be back here on Sunday with something for you to read.  Thanks for sticking around, even when I’m a bummer.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

On Resilience

I would like to start this post with a wonderfully calming photo.

November Clouds

There.  That’s better!

I’ve been struggling with how exactly I’m going to write this post.  We’re going to talk about my career today, like I said we would, because this is a blog about life.  Science is a big part of my life—it’s my intellectual passion, my livelihood, part of my identity.  Being able to say now that I’m a scientist is so fun.  Working as a scientist is very challenging, but I like to think that I’ve done the best I could with what I had.  And right now, I’m in a good place, science-wise.  Over the past year, I’ve been able to take an observation and expand it into a full-blown project with publishable data and a working storyline.  I’m immensely proud of this accomplishment, and until about a week ago, I was feeling very happy with my job—I was convinced that I was well on my way to a publication.  I hadn’t put a deadline on this project, but maybe I’d guess that with another six months to a year I’d have a manuscript ready to be sent out for review.

On Friday, November 18, I met with my boss for an unexpected meeting, during which he told me that in about six months, there would be no more funding for my project.  I’ll spare you the details of that conversation, but suffice to say that it was an alarming piece of news.  I sat through the meeting the same way I sit through breakups: calmly stone-faced.  Afterward, I struggled with tears on and off for the rest of the day.  I tried to call Matt after lunch, and when I got his voicemail, I got so choked up that I couldn’t speak, so I hung up.  Later that day, I called back and left a proper message.

When we finally talked that evening, the feeling that left me most unhappy was the complete surprise of this news.  I felt like a fool, assuming that all was well with my project and my position in the lab.  I worked really hard to establish my project, and I just felt so stunned that my hard work had led me to this point.  I burned with disappointment and anger.

I can’t go into any depth here about my boss’s decision because I don’t wish to make things worse by making accusations on this public site.  You only have my story here; he can’t defend himself.  And most importantly, I have no desire to burn any bridges.  What goes around comes around, right?  One never knows what the future holds, and while I’m not religious, I think that it’s not a bad idea to cultivate good karma.  So I won’t say any more about why I’m angry, other than that I have now invested two years of time in this lab, and I’d like to see a return on my investment.  I may be angry, but I am not bat-shit crazy!

In my line of work, there are two major items that signify success: publications and funded grants.  Publications, arguably, are more important than grants because they are the record of your accomplishments: what you have done that deserves notice, praise, discussion.  Grants are important for continuing your science, and they indicate that you have good writing and project development skills.  At this point in time, my number one priority is to publish my work.  I have decided that I don’t care how flashy the journal is in which my paper is published; the important thing is that it is published, preferably within the next 6-8 months.  So that is my immediate goal—so immediate, in fact, that I’d like to start writing the paper next month.  It won’t hurt to get a good jump-start on it, even if it isn’t submitted until February or March.  (In my dreams, it will be submitted by the end of February.)

As for long-term goals, I am in serious thinking mode.  I always thought that I wanted to be a professor at a small liberal arts college like the one I attended, but now I’m thinking more deeply about science industry.  I am still interested in teaching, training, and pedagogy, but I find it hard to believe that those skills would go to waste in industry.

What I really want from my career is to feel like I am part of a team of equals.  Being a postdoc is pretty lonely, and in my lab, I’m doing work that is quite different from what other people are doing.  I’m the only one reading the papers in this field, which makes me feel isolated.  I don’t like it.  In academia, people become stars.  I don’t want to be a star—I want to be part of a team.  I want to contribute to something bigger than any of us could achieve on our own.  I’m wondering if science industry might fulfill that desire of mine.

I also want to spend more of my time working with people, rather than toiling away on my own experiments.  I suspect I could be quite good at project management, in part because I’m good at setting realistic goals and keeping an eye on all the moving parts.  I’m actually pretty good at multi-tasking on a large scale: planning my time so that today’s experiments get done and so that I’m ready for tomorrow’s experiments.  As Matt loves to point out, I am an excellent planner, which I think might make me good at organizing multiple people on a project.  And importantly, I tend to get along well with my colleagues; in fact, the best part of both the labs in which I’ve worked has been the people.  So I see no reason why I couldn’t teach, train, and supervise other people’s work while contributing to the development of the company’s projects.

To be honest, I never thought I would consider science industry as an option for me.  I loved my college experience, and I do love the idea of being on a college campus as a professor.  But I have to say, I’m pretty curious about what it’s like to work in industry, and the good pay isn’t too shabby either...

Stay tuned for Part Two of this story…(yes, I know—it’s another multi-part story on this blog!)

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

You Lift Me Up

Dear friends, near and far,

I received some bad news last week about my work future, which I intend to explain here, soon, once I’ve got my wits about me.  I’m still reeling from the upset and the disappointment, so I’m feeling rather shy and protective about discussing it too openly.  But I’ll get there, in time.

Today, rather than moping and feeling sorry for myself, I wanted to say thank you to all of you, my dear readers and fellow bloggers.  Whether you lurk, comment occasionally, or have full-blown on-line friendships with me, I am so grateful to have you here.  This blog and I have been through a lot of ups and downs together: graduate school, a very anxious job search, finally finishing a PhD, moving to Texas to pursue new science dreams, and now, enduring a rather uncomfortable phase in my career when I don’t know where I’ll be in a year.  Through all that excitement, upheaval, and anxiety, my kitchen has been a constant source of pleasure.  Being able to share my love for cooking, eating, recipes, and the joy of feeding others and being fed by others has reminded me to live every day to the fullest.  Carpe diem, as Dead Poets Society reminds us.

Friends, you lift me up.  Truly.  Thank you for your friendships, your comments, your e-mails, your stories, and your beautiful blogs.  You inspire me to reach for new heights, to write from the heart, to live every day to the fullest.  You make me laugh, you make me think, and sometimes you make me cry.  Thank you, thank you, thank you.  May you have a joyful Thanksgiving, with a celebration full of love and great food.  Carpe diem, tomorrow and every day.



Face Turned to the Sun

Monday, November 14, 2011

Winner, Winner, Eggplant Dinner!

I have a few vegetables that are always on my “Maybe” list: beets, Brussels sprouts, and eggplant.  I don’t hate any of them, but I also don’t love them either, and I really love many other vegetables.  My years of vegetarianism have coaxed my taste buds away from absurd amounts of candy and toward the garden.  Now I eat candy and vegetables!

I haven’t done anything with beets or Brussels sprouts in a long time, but eggplant leaped onto my radar again with Nigel Slater’s help.  I bought his magnificent book Tender earlier this year, and I kid you not: he devotes 24 pages to what he calls “the big purple shlong we know so well.”  It’s hard not to give eggplant another try when Nigel is waxing erotic about it.

I’ve got my eye on a few of his recipes, but the one I tried last night is one of the simplest.  I think the simplicity highlights its brilliance.  It’s a recipe for baked eggplant topped with a chunky tomato sauce and cheese—fairly standard stuff, really, but the eggplant is baked in lovely rounds that soften into tender steaks without disintegrating into mush.  The tomato sauce is homemade: a few tomatoes chucked into a pan on the stove and cleverly seasoned with some chili along with the standard olive oil, garlic, salt, and pepper.  Nigel calls for a fresh red chili, but I didn’t have that on hand, so I used some dried red chili flakes.  The heat from the chilis is subtle but noticeable in the final dish—it adds a sophisticated flavor that I think is quite welcome in what could otherwise be a very mild, even bland, dish.  Finally, the cheese!  The cheese is shredded and piled on top of the tomato-decorated eggplant steaks, then everything is baked until the cheese is bubbly and caramelized.  As Matt said to me in a recent e-mail, “Fried cheese is always a good call!”  Anytime cheese gets a little brown and crispy, I get excited for dinner, and that’s exactly what happens in this recipe.

Winner, winner, eggplant dinner: I think I’ve finally found an eggplant recipe that will make its way into steady rotation in my kitchen.  Exciting!

Roasted Eggplant with Tomatoes and Cheese

Eggplant Steaks with Tomatoes and Cheese

Adapted from Tender by Nigel Slater

1 medium eggplant

About 2 tbsp. olive oil

Salt to taste

Pepper to taste

4 medium tomatoes, about 1 pound total

1/4 tsp. dried red chili flakes

1 clove garlic

About 1/2 cup shredded cheese, such as Cheddar

1)  Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.  Slice the eggplant into thick rounds, or “steaks,” as I like to call thickly sliced slabs of vegetable.  Place them on a baking sheet, brush with olive oil (I use a pastry brush for this), and sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Bake for 20 minutes, or until tender when pierced with a fork.

2)  While the eggplant is baking, heat about a tablespoon of olive oil in a skillet.  Coarsely chop the tomatoes and slice the garlic, then add them to the pan along with the chili flakes and some salt and pepper (don’t be stingy!).  Allow the tomatoes to bubble and cook down into chunky sauce, about 20 minutes.

3)  Remove the eggplant from the oven.  Top each steak with a generous spoonful of the tomato sauce*, sprinkle some cheese on top, and bake for another 15 minutes.  Serve warm from the oven.

* You might have some tomato sauce left over here, but it’s delicious and who can’t use some good tomato sauce in her fridge?

Sunday, November 6, 2011

San Antonio for the First Time

San Antonio Street Sign_cropped

Many months in advance, Matt warned me that San Antonio is a nauseatingly romantic city.  Charming, no?  One might think that he opposed romance when he offers up descriptions like that!  I worried that someone’s shoes would be the victim of too much romance, but I’m happy to report that no shoes were fouled by the remnants of dinner.  Instead, I found San Antonio to be equal parts beautiful and fun.  It’s a city with a lot of history, but it’s a city that has kept itself relevant by blending the old with the new.  It was a wonderful place to enjoy a little vacation, Texas-style.

It was a road-trippy kind of vacation: Matt picked me up in College Station and drove the two of us to San Antonio.  It was a lovely drive, smooth and easy, though it was sad and distressing to drive through the wildfire-stricken remains of Bastrop.  We arrived in San Antonio in the late afternoon on Sunday, which gave us plenty of time to meander before our dinner reservation.  One of the things I loved best about our vacation was that we were able to walk to most of the restaurants where we ate.  Sunday night’s dinner spot was just off the riverwalk, so we walked along the river and chatted until we came to a stairway, and poof, we were inside and ready for dinner.  The riverwalk was especially romantic all lit up at night, looking gorgeous and inviting.  I could have walked for hours, but there was dinner to be eaten.

One of the nice things about knowing and loving someone for a long time is the way that you mold each other to fit one another’s habits and pleasures.  On Sunday night, we went to dinner at Il Sogno Osteria, where they serve fresh, flavorful Italian food, and you can watch the action as it unfolds in the open kitchen, complete with fiery oven action.  Il Sogno has this antipasti bar where you walk over with a waiter and pick three or five of the items for a choose-your-own-antipasti-plate adventure.  As longtime readers may recall, I am a vegetarian, but when I saw the prosciutto, I knew it needed to come back to our table for Matt, who loves all things pig.  And when the waiter recommended the seafood salad, I thought it should come back with us too.  Perhaps it sounds like I’m bragging, but I feel like in long-term relationships, we show our affections with small gestures.  And perhaps Matt and I enjoy the gustatory differences between us: I bring him prosciutto and seafood at the Italian restaurant, he takes me to the vegetarian restaurant the next night.

This hold-the-meat restaurant is Green, which we both loved, and I mean LOVED.  I was surprised by how much we liked it!  Matt pronounced his barbecue sandwich “the best I’ve ever had,” and I had a very tasty eggplant parmesan sandwich.  We had a long discussion about how traditionally meaty foods, like barbecue, can transition into the meatless world, and Matt told me he liked the place so much that he’d come back without me.  At first, I was jealous that he would think such a thing—of course he should come back with me!—but periodically he has work to do in San Antonio.  So then I felt pleased that I could be the one to introduce him to something new.  During much of our time in San Antonio, Matt was my tour guide, showing me around and explaining the city to me.  It was nice to add something new to his San Antonio knowledge.


Along the River

When we weren’t eating, we were strolling along the riverwalk, or visiting the missions, or drinking wine.  Matt took me to a lovely little wine bar called Zinc, where we spent a few happy hours before dinner.  At one of those happy hours, I was way too hungry not to eat something while we drank, so I ordered the guacamole, which turns out to be quite the show: they bring all the ingredients for the guacamole to your table and make it right in front of your eyes.  It was delicious stuff too, with a smoky flavor imparted by roasted tomatoes they mix into all that creamy avocado.  It totally hit the spot.

I loved being in San Antonio during Halloween.  It was serendipitous that we were there for the holiday and so much fun: we saw a riverboat being driven by the grim reaper, but who knows where he was taking those poor passengers?  Elvis was driving another boat, and in the streets, the dark and chattering grackels created a spooky ambiance as they darted en masse from one tall building to another, their calls echoing through the streets.  On Halloween night, we walked back from Green and ducked into a Starbucks for after-dinner drinks, then we spent the rest of the evening chatting in a flower garden about movies and on-screen chemistry.  It wasn’t very spooky, but it was pretty darn romantic.

What does one call a road trip within a road trip?  I’m not sure.  But whatever it’s called, that’s what we did on our last full day of vacation.  We drove through Texas hill country to Fredericksburg for a dose of quaint, small-town beauty, with a detour into Texas wine country.

Capturing Hill Country

I Agree!

Our visit to wine country was very educational for me.  For one thing, I tasted port for the first time ever.  In fact, I tasted two ports!  At two different tasting rooms!  And it was delicious—rich as the dickens, sweet, velvety, wow.  I liked it a lot.  It’s something to be savored in small quantities.  I am going to keep port in mind this winter, as I hear it tastes better when it’s dark and cold outside, and you want to be warm and toasty inside.

Matt’s never been too enthusiastic about Texas wines.  Texas is a very hot place to be growing grapes—the sun can turn them all into sugar-bomb raisins, which do not make for tasty wine, or so I am told.  But all is not lost when it comes to Texas wines!  Pedernales Cellars is making some interesting wine, and the panoramic view from right outside their tasting room is stunning.  If you’re interested in Texas wines, a wine tasting at Pedernales might be worth the visit, and it’s certainly a lovely drive to get there.

We also visited the new Messina Hof tasting room, partly because the woman pouring our wine at Pedernales suggested it, and we thought, Why not?  But I have to say that Messina Hof’s wines were disappointing.  They didn’t taste bad, but they all tasted the same.  We don’t expect a Merlot to taste like a Cabernet Franc, but I tried both at Messina Hof, and they were remarkably similar.  Which, in wine, is a bad thing.  So I’d say skip Messina Hof, but do make the drive out to Pedernales.  (Though I can, in good faith, recommend Messina Hof’s port.  It’s seriously strong stuff, but wow—tasty!  Our Messina Hof wine-pourer recommended dribbling it over ice cream or baking it into brownies, and I think both ideas sound mighty fine.)

And now what else can be said, other than the obvious?  I loved San Antonio.  I loved that I got to see it for the first time with someone who loves it too.  Matt and I are already talking about where we’ll go next together—he’s ambivalent about New Orleans for complicated reasons.  It’s a complex city with a difficult history, and I’m a vegetarian who may be difficult to feed in New Orleans.  But I wouldn’t be opposed to going back to San Antonio.  We ate and drank well, we remembered why we like each other, and at the end of the trip, I cried.  When you’ve been looking forward to something for a long time, it’s difficult to let it go after it’s over.  I’m trying not to be too bummed about the return to everyday life, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t missing the beauty and excitement of seeing a new city.  So maybe it’s time to start planning that next trip after all.

Friday, November 4, 2011



It’s been a long time since I wrote an Up/Down or +/- list.  I miss writing them!  I do love lists, and I always find that the good stuff outweighs the bad on an Up/Down list.

I’m still getting back into the swing of things this week.  Writing a few shorter posts while I’m settling into post-vacation life is a nice way to organize my thoughts.  And there’s so much good stuff to look forward to in the next few weeks: Thanksgiving! my birthday! cool-weather layers!  Cheers to November and all the fun it brings.

Without further ado, my list!  This is the Hurray/Not So Much version of +/-.


* The smell of roasted squash and pan-fried quesadillas lingering after dinner on a Thursday night.

* San Antonio, after much anticipation.

* Thinking about turning 30 this month and not being afraid.

* Catching up on the blogs I read devotedly.

* Getting excited for Thanksgiving-inspired cooking.  It’s practically National Food Month, y’all!

* Pears.  Dammit, I love pears!

Not So Much…

* Junk mail!  I hate junk mail!  It is the bane of my existence.

* Fretting about what to do with my finances.  I hate money chores.  I wish I could delegate this task to a husband, though I realize that it’s better to be knowledgeable about your money, even if it’s knowledge that is reluctantly obtained.

* Kristen Stewart’s acting.  She is the worst actress I’ve seen on-screen in a long, long time.  Though I will add that I started watching Twilight: Eclipse last night, and so far this movie seems far more interesting than the first two movies.  The acting is a little better, and there’s some good tension in the storyline.

What’s on your +/- list today?  And happy weekend to everyone.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Refreshed and Returned

Texas Landscape

After a really lovely vacation in San Antonio, I am back safe and sound in College Station, ready to dive back into science.  It had been a long time since I had an adult vacation, one where the wine is poured early and often.  Today I am feeling remarkably focused on work—it’s amazing how a vacation can restore your intellectual faculties!  Nevertheless, I have a short list of random thoughts that are noteworthy.  There’s never any shortage of randomness around here!

I think my taste buds have grown tired of oatmeal for breakfast, at least in soaked-oat form.  San Antonio has left me craving granola.  For breakfast, Matt and I went to Sip, a groovy little coffeehouse, because he knows I require breakfast and I’m fond of granola (which he loathes!).  But we went there twice for breakfast and there was no granola to be had!  So now I can’t stop fantasizing about a bowl of cereal mixed with some granola and topped with milk and maybe some fresh fruit.  Yum.

This morning I had no power at home, and I was utterly baffled by the problem.  But it did let me put my candles to good use!  And there’s nothing like candlelight to make you feel beautiful—it’s like nature’s concealer.

Texas is a ginormous state.  It’s easy for me to forget this in my everyday hustle and bustle, trying to be scientifically productive.  But how awesome is it to be just a few hours’ drive from Texas hill country, with its sweeping views of rolling hills and ridges.  It’s pretty awesome.

Sometimes I think intimacy in a long-term relationship is a paradox.  I can be simultaneously charmed and alarmed by the pervasiveness of Matt’s influence on my life: what I read, what I eat, the music I enjoy.  The way I think.  Am I losing myself in this relationship?  Sometimes I feel I know him so well that he is an extension of my heart.  And I worry that this intimacy is more fragile than I realize, and I take it for granted.

Then again, if I am as good to him as I am to myself, maybe there’s nothing to worry about.

But I’ll never offer him any granola.  And I just smile and laugh when he orders dessert for breakfast.  Because it’s kinda cute, right?  It certainly makes me want to bake old-fashioned chocolate chip cookies for his next visit.

I like any excuse to bake chocolate chip cookies.  Or any excuse to drink wine.  Maybe that’s the key to our happiness.  We’re just a pair of hedonists.

Yes, I think that’s it.

I’ll be back soon with more to say about San Antonio.  Soon, soon.  Happy November, all.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Skipping Out of Town

Country Road

I can hardly believe it, but today I get to pack my bag for a vacation.  Tomorrow I am skipping out of town.  Matt and I are headed for San Antonio.  I haven’t seen him since June, and that’s when we made up our minds about this trip.  Five months is a long time to go without seeing someone you really like, and I am ready to see that man.  Honestly, five months is really too long for us, but my schedule gave the illusion that late October was the best time for this trip.  It’s okay—I’m a pro at this relationship now.  I’m just patient enough to make it work, though I really hope we don’t have another five-month gap between visits!

Today I’m relaxing, packing my bag, and baking cookies.  Tonight a few friends and I may be indulging in some autumn fun by visiting a corn maze after dark.  I’m excited—I’ve never been to a corn maze!  But I’m even more excited for Matt and San Antonio tomorrow.  I hope to take some photos so that I can share a few tidbits about our trip, but I plan to relax, really relax, over the next few days.  I’m actually going off-line when we hit the road, something that scares me a little bit because my on-line habits are so deeply ingrained in my daily life.  But I think it will be good to immerse myself in the otherness of a new place and to reconnect with Matt in real time.

I hope this doesn’t sound too cheesy, but I’ll miss all of you while I’m gone!  I will look forward to catching up with you and your lovely blogs when I return.

One last thing before I go: I finally wrote an “About Me” page!  I figured that after four years of blogging, I should probably introduce myself more properly.  It reads a bit like a CV, and I’m sorry about that, but I am so deep in the trenches of science and the nerdy life that it feels right to me.  If there’s something you are dying to ask me, ask away!  I’ll add it to the About Me page, perhaps as an inFAQ (inFrequently Asked Questions).  Why inFAQ?  Because this is a small blog, therefore all questions are infrequently asked.

Later, gators!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Dinnertime Frugality, Performed with Style and Ease


Allow me to assure you that I have a selfish interest in the recipe list I posted last time.  My spending this month has been a little wonky, between adjusting to a new grocery shopping routine, taking my bike to the bike doctor (in theory—it hasn’t happened yet!), and visiting San Antonio at the end of the month.  I’m especially excited about that last item, a trip that Matt and I have been anticipating for a good five months.  I’m planning to spend a boatload of money on the trip, so I’m pinching pennies before and after to make myself feel better.

But it’s not just about saving money.  To me, there is a certain virtue in kitchen frugality that goes beyond the wallet.  It’s about making the most of what you’ve got and being grateful for the time and skill that cooking requires.  I have a love/hate relationship with discussions about how to save money.  Growing up in a frugal household, saving money wasn’t about being trendy or practicing environmental sustainability; it was about keeping us out of poverty.  And that’s a scary thought for me—the idea that if we don’t pinch every penny so hard it squeals, we may slide out of the middle class and into the position where money determines our quality of life in painfully tangible ways.

Don’t get me wrong: I think fiscal responsibility is a requirement for a grown-up life.  But I like to temper my frugality with generosity, creativity, and a deeper sense of how our spending reflects our values.  Food and cooking perfectly capture the intersection of those qualities: I believe you can eat well, really well, on a budget.  But you gotta know what you’re doing to make it happen!

Tuesday night’s dinner was a good example of fiscal responsibility in the kitchen.  I decided to make mujadara, or something similar to it, but I thought I was out of white rice.  I immediately thought of going to the store to buy rice, when I remembered that I still had brown rice at home.  Even better, I remembered I had cooked brown rice at home, leftovers from last week.  So I took a deep breath, scratched the shopping trip from my list of things to do, and decided that I’d make dinner happen with the supplies I already had at home.

Caramelized onions are essential for the rich flavor in mujadara, but I was short on yellow onions.  I decided to make up the difference with other aromatics: a shallot, some carrots, a few stalks of celery.  And since I was already tinkering with the dish, I decided to substitute a splash of pomegranate-balsamic vinegar for the lemon.  This fancy vinegar (which was only about five bucks for a bottle) is so delicious that whenever I smell it, I want to take a sip straight from the bottle. 

The dish came together most deliciously: leftover brown rice, a rummage through the produce drawer for aromatics, a little fancy vinegar to add sparkle to the meal.  And the pleasure of spending half an hour putzing in the kitchen, making dinner?  That was my favorite part.  Money might make you a wealthy person, but I’m pretty sure it’s hearth and home that make my life rich.

Mujadara Sort Of

Poor mujadara, likely to be voted “World’s Ugliest Vegan Dinner.”  It tastes so much better than it looks, I promise.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

A Cozy Recipe List to Keep Your Wallet Happy

Autumn Coffee Table

Bowl of Pears

After our discussions about budgets and food shopping, I thought it might be nice to write a little recipe list for us.

As a nod both to my vegan readers and to thrifty cooking, all the recipes in this list are vegan.  These recipes are among my all-time favorites of all the recipes I’ve shared on this blog through four years of blogging.  Though I don’t follow a vegan diet, there’s a lot of crosstalk between vegetarian and vegan cookery; obviously the latter is a subset of the former.  I tend to gravitate toward vegan recipes that are heavy on the beans and vegetables—with some rice or bread on the side, a vegan meal can make me very happy.

To keep the ingredients for these recipes very affordable, I stayed away from the pricier items in the vegan pantry, such as canned artichokes or maple syrup.  And of course, since the recipes are vegan, there’s no concern about buying organic, local, free-range eggs or milk from grass-fed cows, both of which are expensive (as they should be, in my opinion).  These recipes build layers of flavor with not-too-pricy ingredients and a well-stocked spice cabinet.

Happy cooking! 

An Appetizer

* Roasted Chickpeas with Smoked Paprika (and I must add that this post is one of my all-time favorites.  This time of year makes me very nostalgic for my old life in Evanston.)

Soups and Stews to Keep You Warm

* Black Bean Soup with Rice

* Moroccan Carrot and Tomato Soup

* The Lazy Cook’s Tomatillo, Hominy, and Pumpkin Stew

A Lentil Dish

* Mujadara

A Tofu Dish

* Roasted Broccoli and Tofu

Some Side Dishes to Eat with Your Legumes

* Oil-and-Vinegar Oven Fries

* Nicole’s Mexican Coleslaw

And a Few Sweet Endings

* Vegan Peanut Butter Cookies

* Walnut Wafers (yes, walnuts are an expensive ingredient, but this recipe only calls for 1 cup of walnuts and it makes a few dozen cookies)

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Playing Hooky

Saturday Morning Table

I haven’t been feeling well this week.  I’ll spare you the bodily details, but suffice to say, it hit me hard on Thursday afternoon, when I wanted nothing more than to take a nap at work, and it followed me around on Friday.  Last night I bagged my plans to go for a run, and instead, I curled up on the couch and ate pasta with pesto, chickpeas, and grape tomatoes.  Then, for dessert, I made fudge sauce and ate that with chocolate cake.  All in all, a nutritious dinner, right?  Right.  Don’t argue with me here.

On most Saturdays, I head into work in the morning for a few hours, but not today.  It’s very rare for me to take a sick day during the Monday-Friday work week; it’s far more common for me to take a day here or there to spend with Matt if he’s in town or if we’ve made other plans.  Vacation days, yes.  Sick days, no.  But in my mind, I’ve taken today as a sick day, so I’m spending a lazy Saturday morning at home.  I slept until 9 AM, then dozed in bed for another half an hour.  Then I got up and puttered around the kitchen, making my oatmeal and coffee, emptying the dishwasher, and cleaning up the kitchen, which needs more TLC than I’ve been giving it.  In a few minutes, I’ll call a friend, make a grocery list, and get myself ready to face the outside world.  But it’s been really nice to be at home all morning, with no pressing concerns.  I love being at home, but I’m afraid my life for the past few months has been altogether too full, and I’m due for some slowing down, even if it’s just a morning or two.

The thing about working on the weekend regularly is that it can make you lazy.  You don’t push yourself as hard during the week if you know that you’ll be working “extra” on Saturdays or Sundays.  At least that’s true for me.  I certainly don’t regret all the weekend time I’ve put into my job lately; it helped propel my project and it gave me something to do other than worry.  I was too busy working to worry!

But this weekend, I think I’ll be staying away from the lab.  My hope is that come Monday morning, I’ll feel refreshed and ready to hit the ground running, as opposed to the mediocre shuffling that I performed this week.  This weekend, I’m going to make soup and continue updating my recipe index.  I’m going to write posts and go for runs and watch the birds and visit the library.  Maybe I’ll bake a cake.  Maybe I’ll go for a long walk with a friend.  Maybe, maybe, maybe…

It’s a weekend filled with possibilities.  I hope your weekend is lovely, too, dear reader.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Shop Talk

I had an unexpected loss this year: my neighborhood grocery store.  RIP, Albertson’s on University.  We had a good run of it together.


The store’s closing hit me fast and hard: I found out in September that their last day was October 8.  Apparently, that particular Albertson’s location was bought out by HEB, which kind of makes me hate HEB, even though they do have an outstanding produce section.  I loved having a decent grocery store that was quite literally within walking distance: it was three blocks away from me.  It seemed serendipitous that even in Texas, land of a thousand trucks, I, the carless freak, had a grocery store I could visit virtually any time because it was so close.  Now I have nothing.

Oh, I exaggerate.  I still have options.  There’s the hippie food store a bit further down the road from the old Albertson’s, which can be reached easily on foot or on bike.  There’s the HEB down the road from the hippie store, too far for foot travel but easy to reach on bike.  And then there’s my favorite newly “discovered” option, Village Foods, which can be reached quickly by bus.  I’ve known about Village Foods since my early days in Texas, but because of its location and the difficulty of riding my bike to it, I hadn’t shopped there in a long time until this month.  I like Village Foods.  It’s like a cross between Whole Foods and Albertson’s: they have a small but respectable selection of organic produce as well as lots of other organic products, but they also carry a lot of items one expects to find at a typical chain grocery store.  They have what looks like a promising selection of alcoholic beverages, too—I spotted cans of Strongbow Cider, which is seriously delicious cider (and very strong too!  I was quite tipsy after a pint at the bar over the summer).  The best thing about Village Foods and the hippie store (whose proper name is Brazos Natural Foods) is that they are independent grocery stores, not chains.  Indie grocery stores!  How terrific is that?  I may not be so good at supporting indie bookstores, but dammit, I can do it for food.

The biggest loss I am feeling after Albertson’s closing is that I no longer have the option of popping into the store after work for a few basics whenever I’m in need.  No more shopping trips for a bunch of bananas, milk, a can of tomatoes, and a package of toilet paper.  Without Albertson’s, I’m being forced to reconsider my shopping habits, to adapt to a new model.  It’s now inconvenient for me to go shopping with short lists—I need longer, more comprehensive shopping lists, lists that take into account my ingredient needs for several meals, not just the next thing I want to cook.  I suppose I’ve been lucky in that I could shop more or less if and when I wanted—today, tomorrow, next week, whatever.  It didn’t matter because the store was so close.  But now, to go grocery shopping is a bigger deal because the stores are further away and of the two big grocery stores, only one of them is accessible by bike.

Twice this month I’ve sucked it up: I made long lists, took the bus to the grocery store, filled my cart (a cart! not just a basket!) with goodies, spent a week’s worth of grocery money in one transaction, then called a cab to haul me and my loot home.  It was nice, being able to buy as much as I wanted because I wasn’t turning my bike into a mule and loading my groceries onto it.  And it was only a little hard parting with some of my dollars for the cab ride.

So I’m adapting.  I’m figuring out how to be a more organized shopper.  I am still planning to shop twice a week, once at the hippie food store on Saturdays and once at either HEB or Village Foods.  Twice a week is a good rhythm for me because I like fresh produce, and with HEB, I can either bike it or cab it, depending on what else is on the list.  And on the nights I’m cabbing it, I’m enjoying the option to buy a four-pack of hard cider without worrying about all that glass wobbling with me on my bike.

My kitchen is enjoying it too, this feeling of being well-stocked.  Over the weekend, I made a surprisingly good onion quiche (recipe coming soon, I hope!), vegan chocolate cake, and last night I made kale and chickpea burritos.  I’m eating well, which is good because it’s only Tuesday and I’m already over budget for the week!  Oof.  But I think it will all balance out: the pantry is well-provisioned, and I think I’ll only want a few things when I ride my bike to HEB later this week.  No cab ride, just some fresh fruit, carrots, coconut milk, and maybe some almonds.

Friends, what are your approaches to grocery shopping?  Are you a “shop once, buy everything” type or do you make smaller but more frequent trips?  How important is fresh produce to you?  How do you integrate grocery shopping into the rest of your busy life?

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Steady Rotation, or How I Like to Spend My Saturday Afternoons

If rice pudding isn’t your thing, how about the easiest peanut butter cookies I’ve ever made?

Cookie Closeup

Yes, indeed, these cookies are my current favorites, in part because the recipe makes a tiny batch, just nine cookies, which makes them very low-key, as far as cookies go.  They have a lovely texture too, delicate and a little crumbly.  They’re soft cookies, slightly cakey cookies, not snappy or crispy cookies.

I’ve been making them all summer long, ever since I had a hankering to make a peanut butter version of this recipe.  I liked that original recipe a lot, but I found that neither the cookies nor the cookie dough keeps very well—they’re best eaten within a day or two.  Don’t let that warning deter you too much because really, with such a small batch of cookies, isn’t it easy to make sure they all get eaten quickly?  Perhaps a little too easy, yes?

Anyway, the latest incarnation of this small-batch recipe is a peanut butter version which borrows the famous flax-egg trick from vegan baking circles.  I like the flax-egg trick!  Water, ground flax seed, some light stirring, a few minutes, and boom: gooey egg replacement, ready to be added to your cookie dough.  I make up the flax egg before mixing the other ingredients, and by the time I’m ready for the flax egg, it’s nice and gooey and perfect for its task of holding everything together.

I got into the habit of making these on Saturday afternoons.  I would finish lunch at home and crave something small and sweet.  Baking a few cookies seemed like the perfect small-time kitchen project to officially launch my weekend (which never feels like it starts until after I’ve done my Saturday morning chores).  Then I’d make myself a mug of iced tea, curl up with my plate of cookies, and read a book on the couch.  Happiness!

Peanut Butter Cookies

Small-Batch Peanut Butter Cookies

Adapted from this recipe

Makes 9 cookies

I have a few variations on these cookies too, which I’ll list below.  A good cookie lends itself well to tinkering!  If you have any suggestions for more variations, feel free to share them in the comments.

1/2 tbsp. ground flax seed

1 1/2 tbsp. water

1/2 cup + 2 tbsp. flour (I typically use all-purpose flour, whole-wheat pastry flour, or a combination of both.  The all-pastry flour cookie is more delicate than the other options.)

1/4 tsp. baking soda

1/8 tsp. salt

1/4 tsp. cinnamon

1/4 cup butter, softened

1/4 cup sugar

2 tbsp. peanut butter

1/4 tsp. vanilla extract

1/4 cup chocolate chips

Nonstick spray

1)  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

2)  To make the flax egg, mix the flax seed and water together in a small measuring cup.  Set aside.

3)  Combine the flour, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon in a small bowl.  Set aside.

4)  Cream together the butter and sugar in a medium mixing bowl.  Add the peanut butter and vanilla extract, and mix together.  Add the flax egg and mix.

5)  Mix the flour mixture into the butter mixture until a dough forms.  Stir in the chocolate chips.

6)  Spray a baking sheet with nonstick spray.  Form the dough into tablespoon-sized balls and place on the sheet with about two inches between balls.  Use your palm to flatten the ball to about 1/2-inch thickness.  If you like, you can use a fork to make those cute criss-cross patterns on the cookies.

7)  Bake for 12-13 minutes.  Allow them to cool on their baking sheet for about 10 minutes, then remove and eat or allow them to cool completely before storing in an airtight container.


* This is really obvious, but sometimes I like a pure peanut butter cookie, so I leave out the chocolate chips.

* For an oatmeal-peanut butter-chocolate chip cookie, I add 2 tbsp. rolled oats along with the chocolate chips.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

On Rewards and Rice Pudding

This is my theory on running and life: you must be your own best cheerleader.

I’m really lucky that I have a lot of kind people in my life.  These people are happy for me when things are going well, and they’re bummed with me when things are crappy.  Still, I think we owe it to ourselves to treat ourselves the way we want other people to treat us.  And that means hushing that inner voice telling you that you can’t, it’s not possible, you’re going to fail, you’re too tired, you aren’t smart enough, you’re lazy, you’re fat, you’re ugly, and on and on and on…as a woman, I often fear that we’ve taken society’s misogynistic messages and internalized them.  Why else would women’s magazines feature pictures of impossibly beautiful women wearing bikinis?  I think it’s because collectively, we’ve signed off on the idea that it is part of a woman’s duty to be thin and pretty.  And I resent this message.

I think we owe it to ourselves to take care of our bodies, to strive for healthiness above beauty.  I think about this message a lot, mostly when I have my own tiny moments of body insecurity.  Yes, I’m happy with my weight, but I have moments when I ignore the whole so I can dissect the parts: is my belly a little more padded than it used to be?  Are my thighs looking heavier?  I do this little routine for a few minutes, then I remember: these parts are the same ones that pedaled me to work today, that accompanied me on my run yesterday.  This is the body that will carry me to the end of my life, and if it doesn’t mind a little extra padding, then neither do I.

For most of us, our worries about a little extra padding are the fastest way to drain the joy and pleasure out of our days.  Life is short.  Carpe diem, I say, not carpe diet.

I digress.  Let’s get back to this business of the inner cheerleader.  My point in talking about bodies and our feelings toward them is that we seem to find it much easier to internalize negativity.  I think a critical secret to success is to internalize a positive voice, a kind of optimism that only gets louder as things get harder.  It’s a way to stay focused on the prize, to not let yourself be distracted by anything but the immediate goal.  Believe me, there is plenty of negativity out there to drag you down, if that’s what you want.  But what will lift you up?  What makes you feel strong and capable?  For me, my inner cheerleader is that source of focused positive energy.

I work in a field where positive feedback is often scant, and it’s something I’ve wrestled with for a long time.  In graduate school, I don’t think my advisor ever said a congratulatory word to me when I was awarded a grant or when my paper was finally accepted for publication.  I took his lack of praise pretty hard.  It made me angry and depressed not to get accolades for achieving things that he and I had been working toward for so long.  I felt like he owed me some praise.  But now, looking back, I don’t think he did.  He owed me his best efforts as a mentor, and I do think he did the best he could.  But he didn’t owe me any praise.

Fast forward to this week.  On Tuesday, I presented my research during lab meeting.  It was an important talk, the first one I’ve given in a long time.  I felt like it was a milestone of sorts, an evaluative moment after a long summer of intense focus.  And the talk went really well!  I put a lot of time and thought into it, and even though I didn’t have much of a chance to practice the talk, I feel like the presentation went smoothly.  Afterward, I was quite pleased with it.

But the most important point is this: I did not receive any praise from my advisor.  I still don’t know what my future prospects are with this lab—will I be working here next month?  In three months?  In six months?  During the talk, my advisor did offer constructive critical feedback on my work, which I take as a positive sign.  But I walked away from that meeting with little more than my own sense of self congratulations.

On a practical level, I do need to know what my options are, career-wise, in this lab.  If I no longer have a position here, then I need to hit the job market to find a new one.  I will have that conversation with my advisor before the month is over.  But for now, I feel satisfied that I did the best job I could, and no one can take that away from me, no matter what happens next.

Sometimes the pat on the back we give ourselves is the one that matters most.

In addition to your inner cheerleader, the other thing you need is carrots.  Rewards.  A real pat on the back.  Or, in my case this week, rice pudding made with Arborio rice and finished with a rum custard sauce. 


I’m all about stealing borrowing inspiration, and this recipe collects its cues from three sources: the Moosewood folks; my blogging friend, the lovely Raquelita; and Nigella Lawson.  I must be in a rather academic mood for all this citing of sources, but here’s how it worked: last weekend, I made the Rum Custard Sauce from the Moosewood Restaurant Book of Desserts.  It’s very tasty on its own, but it really is a sauce, not something you pour into a bowl and eat by the spoonful on its own.  (Not that I would do that…at least not without adding some bananas first!  Bananas make Rum Custard Sauce healthy, right?)  I needed something to go with my sauce, and Raquelita suggested rice pudding, which sounded perfect.  I swear, sometimes I think she and I share a brain because I’ve had a recipe for pumpkin rice pudding on my mind.  But for a pudding that was going to make good use of the Rum Custard Sauce, I wanted something simpler and more straightforward, and here is where I turned to Nigella Lawson.  She’s got a recipe for rice pudding for one in How to Eat, which sounded homey and delicious.  I took her basic recipe and tweaked it a bit to fit what I had on hand.  The end result was a creamy, delicious, perfect rice pudding—simple and straightforward, just rice luxuriating in a sauce spiked with rum custard.  There are no fruits and no spices, so it’s the kind of rice pudding a purist could love. 

Rice Pudding for a Purist 

Risotto Rice Pudding with Rum Custard Sauce

Serves 2, perhaps with a little left over

For the Rum Custard Sauce (from Moosewood Restaurant Book of Desserts)

This eggless custard sauce could not be easier to make: a little light whisking and you’re done.

1/2 cup milk

1/2 cup heavy cream

1/2 cup packed brown sugar

1 tbsp. flour

2 tbsp. rum

1)  In a saucepan, combine the milk, cream, and brown sugar.  Whisk them together.  Heat the mixture over low heat, and whisk in the flour.  Stir constantly until the sauce thickens slightly and has no lumps.

2)  Remove from the heat and stir in the rum.  If you’re making this ahead of time, allow the sauce to cool then store it in the fridge.

For the Rice Pudding (adapted from How to Eat by Nigella Lawson):

3 cups water

2 tbsp. butter

2 tbsp. granulated sugar

1/4 cup Arborio rice

1/4 cup Rum Custard Sauce (see above for recipe)

1)  In a saucepan, heat the water until hot but not boiling.  Turn off the heat.

2)  Melt the butter over medium heat in a large sauce pan or even a Dutch oven (the high sides make for pleasant and mess-free stirring).  Add the sugar and stir to combine.  Cook for a minute or two, then add the rice and stir to coat it in the buttery-sugary mixture.  Using a ladle, begin adding the water, a ladle or two at a time, stirring almost constantly.  (I stir frequently, but I find risotto doesn’t absolutely require constant stirring.  It’s sort of like baby-sitting—keep an eye and a hand on the risotto [or child], but if you want to wash a few dishes in between stirs, that’s quite all right.)  Allow the rice to absorb the liquid before adding the next ladle or two.  As you get close to the bottom of the water pan, begin checking the texture of the rice by tasting it.  If it’s too al dente for your taste, then keep adding water.  I used almost all the water, but I like soft rice.  You may prefer yours a little chewier.

3)  When the rice is done to your liking, stir in the Rum Custard Sauce.  It might look like a lot of liquid, but give it a few stirs and you’ll find that the rice pudding will have a nice, thick-but-not-too-thick saucy texture.

4)  Serve the rice pudding warm or at room temperature.  Leftovers are tasty tucked into the lunchbox and might be reason enough to double the recipe.  Yum!