Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Book Report

My Current Stack

I’m feeling very organized today, having just renewed all my library book loans.  We have a terrific library on campus here, and I like to visit it often.  The library sits right in the middle of the main campus, where the humanities types hang out.  In my experience, the science buildings, especially the older ones, tend to have an ugly industrial feel to them, and there’s always a lot of traffic from a steady stream of delivery trucks.  Humanities buildings, while not always gorgeous, have at least a few nice aesthetic touches, making them feel less like factories and more like places of higher learning.  In a science building, it’s easy to forget that you are in an academic setting, especially when you encounter the stereotypical scientist who refuses to mutter hello and can’t make eye contact with anyone in the hallway.  Science is a social freakshow, which is why I am grateful to escape to the library side of campus whenever possible.

I’ve been picking out my library books using my reading list.  I finished The Age of Innocence and Trespass, both of which were excellent.  Edith Wharton and Amy Irvine are wonderful writers who know how to spin words into an engaging, lyrical, and sometimes heartbreaking story.

I tried to read The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, but my heart just isn’t in it right now.  Recently, my life has been overwhelmed by work, and reading about science is not appealing.  I need my leisure reading to be a little escape from my work life, so I have veered off the reading list path and into a book I found serendipitously.  I was in the library looking for Arrow of the Blue-Skinned God and could not find it anywhere, even though the library catalog said it was available.  But!  While I was wandering the shelves of India and Indian literature, I found Dreaming in Hindi by Katherine Russell Rich, which is the story of the author’s adventures in learning Hindi.  I just started reading it a few days ago, and the book has sucked me into its pages.  Russell Rich is a talented writer: funny, observant, curious, and introspective.  Because I am spending so much time in one place right now—no trips for me until September!—it’s nice to read a book about something as exotic and faraway as India, with the story told from an American’s viewpoint.

If this Indian theme keeps up, next I’ll be combing the cookbook shelves for a good Indian cookbook.  Too bad my friend Amutha hasn’t written a cookbook because she’s my favorite Indian cook!  Why do all the best cooks in my life store their cookbooks in their brains?  

Monday, June 27, 2011

Quesadillas Between Friends

Perhaps it was a foreshadowing of my crazy idea to move to Texas in pursuit of science, but I have always been a fan of Tex-Mex cuisine.  I’m not sure what defines Tex-Mex precisely; I think of it as an amalgamation of tortillas, spicy salsas, inventively seasoned meat and beans, corn in ground and whole form, and cheese.  Lots of cheese.  Oh, and deep-fried avocadoes—holy moly, those are good.  I know the deep-fried avocado can make you stop, take a deep breath, and check to see that yes, your heart really did just skip a beat.  It’s kind of an insane idea: Let’s take the fattiest fruit we can find, dip it in batter, and bathe it in more fat!  But before that, we’re going to stuff it with fat in the form of cheese!  A deep-fried avocado isn’t everyday food (at least I hope it’s not), but it’s worth having once in your life.  I’ve had it a few times now, a crispy, cheesy specimen shared with three others at a tiny table in a crowded Mexican restaurant, and let me assure you: it’s worth it.  Do it so you can tell all your friends you’ve eaten a deep-fried avocado, which is sure to inspire shock, awe, and maybe even a little admiration.  And if you and I ever cross paths and you brag to me about deep-fried avocado adventures, I’ll give you a high five.

Avocadoes aside, I love Tex-Mex food in many of its incarnations, but my very favorite way to do Tex-Mex is at home, with my own well-worn pots and pans.  Good food is as much about taste as it is about texture, and Tex-Mex is delightful in both ways.  (For evidence, please consider the above-mentioned deep-fried avocado: crispy, creamy, gooey, all in one messy little breaded package.)  I draw the line at deep-frying avocadoes at home, but I’m very happy to whip up a quesadilla or two for something that’s crispy, creamy, and gooey without the vat of used oil to clean up afterward.

Quesadilla Cooked in Butter

I used to be devoted to one and only one way of making quesadillas: fried in oil inside a skillet.  But one evening, a chilly winter night not too long ago, I was shown that once again, butter is better.  Matt was visiting, and, as is his habit, he took over my kitchen to cook us dinner.  On one side of the stove, he cooked onions and peppers until they were silky and sweet; on the other, he melted lumps of butter in a skillet.  Into the butter he laid fresh flour tortillas, purchased from the tortilla factory down the road from me.  He warmed up the tortillas, letting them luxuriate in their buttery puddle, and then he layered those onions and peppers followed by big handfuls of cheese.  Matt is not one what might call a “restrained” or “health-conscious” cook.  He’s in the kitchen for one reason and one reason only: flavor.  And oh my goodness, those were some of the best quesadillas I’ve ever had.  I know I’m spoiled, as is everyone who gets to eat his food, but you and I can both steal his quesadilla trick: cook them in butter, or a little butter plus oil if you like. 

The other thing you need to know about cooking quesadillas on the stovetop is that you shouldn’t be too afraid to crank up the heat to let those tortillas get crispy and a little black.  We’re not aiming for completely burnt here; just a little burnt to add another layer of flavor and good crunchiness.

After learning about Matt’s secret butter trick, I happily adopted it for my quesadilla nights until a few weeks ago, when my friend Ammie told me how delicious the quesadilla recipe in Melissa Clark’s book is.  When we catch up on the phone, Ammie and I usually compare notes about what we’ve cooked lately, and she’s been on a roll with In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite.  She is showing that book who’s boss.  I’m so proud of her!  The quesadilla recipe, she explained, uses a broiler method to cook the quesadillas.  I should add here that Ammie has a long-standing fear of the broiler, and she’s very brave to consider cooking anything under the broiler after a traumatic experience with asparagus. 

Quesadillas under a broiler?  I was intrigued.  I could see how it might work—the broiler would crisp the tortillas and even burn them a little bit, providing that much-loved hint of charred flavor.  And compared to the stovetop method, the broiler would make things easy easy easy: just throw the quesadilla on a baking sheet, slide it under the broiler, set the timer, flip when you hear the beep beep beep, and slide it back under the broiler for another minute or so. 

Quesadilla with Broiling Treatment

Out comes a crispy, creamy, gooey quesadilla, which you can then slide onto a pretty bamboo cutting board and slice into quarters with a sharp knife.  Take it to the table and sit down to a dinner of hot quesadillas, green salad, and maybe a cold glass of white wine.

Quesadilla on Table

It’s what summer should look and taste like.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Apple Crumble, Hold the Oatmeal

I know I’m a Type A personality.  I’m a planner, detail-oriented, and punctual.  I hate it when other people are late.  I like to do the same things at the same time each day.  I eat the same breakfast every day, a steady theme made colorful with variations, swapping winter’s oranges for spring’s strawberries for summer’s blueberries.  But I swear, despite all this Type A business, I have a pretty strong hippie undercurrent.  I have a freezer stuffed with various whole-grain flours, a pair of hippie sandals on my feet, and the occasional desire to tell the man he can bite me as I ride off into the distance in my VW hippie bus.  I believe in civil rights for all, marriage for those who want it, and that morality and justice are not the same thing.

But most of all, I believe in apple crumble.

Apple Crumble Morning Light

Okay, maybe I don’t believe in apple crumble more than civil rights.  That would be silly.  But I do believe that those of us with hippie tendencies like to pile our fruit crumbles high with oatmeal, and that is the point where I am about to diverge from classic hippie cookery.  In my past, I have enjoyed oatmeal-gilded crumbles, such as this simple blueberry one, which I think would benefit from even more of that delicious, streusel-like oatmeal topping.  Blueberries get along well with oatmeal.  Apples probably do too, but hear me out on this one: an oatmeal-less crumble, especially one that’s packed with two kinds of nuts, rum-soaked raisins, and big tender bites of apple, is a revelation.

It’s not just the rum talking either, though giving raisins a boozy bath does infuse this dessert a little bit of a rum raisin ice cream feel, especially if you eat it with good ice cream.  Which you should.  (Ammie, my dear, I hope your ears just perked up when I wrote “rum raisin.”  I blame you for introducing me to the addictive combination of raisins, booze, sugar, and cream.  Help!)  This apple crumble is really one of those magical recipes where each part, each delicious component, is present and accounted for, flavor-wise, but the overall effect is so much better than a simple sum of parts.  We’ve got apples for the base (duh), walnuts for crunch, almond flour for a softer nutty crunch, butter for richness, sugar for sweetness, and salt for that wonderful savory undercurrent that supports any good dessert these days.  The original recipe started in Nigella Lawson’s How to Eat, but I’ve taken enough liberties with it that it feels like my own.  Not that I’m particularly possessive about recipes and adaptations, but I’m just saying that I really like my version of her recipe.

The Crumble is Ready for Its Close-Up

I find that making this crumble is a wonderful way to spend a weeknight evening—calmly peeling and chopping the apples, soaking the raisins, squishing my fingers into a bowl of flours and butter to make the crumble topping.  It’s enough of a project that I can let myself sink into the preparations, but it’s not so overwhelming that it feels like too much after a day at work.  But the best part is definitely the part where I make myself a little bowl of crumble with a scoop of vanilla ice cream to gild the lily.  The combination is ambrosial, delightful, and so very delicious that it justifies buying apples instead of blueberries in June.  No, scratch that.  You should buy apples AND blueberries.  Yes.  June is a month to indulge yourself in fruit and fresh food.  And like every other month of the year, it’s a month in which you can bake this apple crumble.

Apple Crumble, Hold the Oatmeal

Adapted from How to Eat by Nigella Lawson

Serves 4

Vegans, feel free to substitute Earth Butter or another vegan margarine for the butter here.  I can’t imagine that it would be anything but completely delicious as a vegan dessert.

3 tbsp. rum

2 tbsp. raisins

1/2 cup flour

1/4 cup almond flour

1/4 tsp. salt

4 tbsp. (half a stick) cold butter

1/2 cup walnuts, chopped

4 tbsp. granulated sugar, divided

4 large apples

Nonstick spray

For serving: vanilla ice cream, optional

1)  Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

2)  In a small saucepan, heat the rum gently over medium heat.  Take the rum off the heat, add the raisins, stir them around a bit, and let them soak while you prep the rest of the recipe.

3)  In a medium bowl, mix together the flour, almond flour, and salt.  Dice the butter into small dice, add it to the flour mixture, and use your fingers to rub the butter into the dry ingredients until you get a rubbly, shaggy pile.  Stir the walnuts and 3 tbsp. of sugar into the flour/butter mixture.  Stash this bowl in a cold place—I usually tuck it in the freezer because my fridge is always way too full to find room for a mixing bowl.

4)  Peel and core the apples, then cut them into chunks about 1/2-1 inch in size.  Put them in a medium- or large-sized saucepan with the rum, raisins, and remaining 1 tbsp. sugar.  Stir everything around a bit, then cook over medium heat for about five minutes, stirring or shaking the pan once or twice.

5)  Spray a 9-inch pie pan with nonstick spray.  Pile the apple mixture into the bottom, then top with the flour mixture.  Place the pie pan in the oven and bake for about 25 minutes.  The crumble topping should be golden brown and your kitchen should smell amazing.  Remove from the oven and serve warm or at room temperature with a scoop or two of vanilla ice cream on the side.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

A Thursday List

My blog friend Chrissy used to write these great lists on Fridays.  She would list the ups and downs of her week (+/-), and I always thought it was a fun bird’s-eye view of the week.  These days, I feel terribly behind on my ambitious blogging plans; I have approximately 685 posts that I’d like to write, several of which I’ve already started.  But I really enjoy spontaneous blogging too, the kind that happens because you are inspired, so you sit down, pull your thoughts together, press “Publish,” and voila!  A fresh new post, happy and shiny and filled with whatever was rolling around in your head at that moment.

Ta da!  Let’s do this.

The good stuff:

* Rain!  Cooler weather!  And during the week of the summer solstice no less!  It’s a Texas miracle!

* Green dresses from Five Bamboo.  I could live in this dress for the next five months.  It even has pockets! 

Green Dress with Hippie Shoes

* Glee on Netflix.  So fun, so cheesy, so ridiculous, so awesome.  I am hooked.

* Crazy squirrels.  Hey, we all get hungry sometimes.

We All Get Hungry Sometimes

* Rediscovering my Heather Nova CD.  Between this and Glee, it’s like I’m back in high school again, minus all that angsty crushing on the guy who never did return my teenage love.  I hear he’s a doctor now…but so am I!  Ha.

* Things calming down at work after a few weeks of chaos.  I am busy busy busy, but it’s not quite so overwhelming.

The not-so-good stuff:

* A boring lunch on Wednesday.  I am such a ridiculous foodie that a boring lunch will get me down.

* Mystery produce that turned out NOT to be tender green beans.  Instead, I bought tough, stringy green bean imposters.  Does anyone know what these are?

Mystery Produce

Happy almost-weekend, groovy readers!  May your lunches be exciting and your crushes love you back.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A Little Too Easy: Thoughts on Love

Sunflowers and Sky

Matt has a funny relationship with this blog.  Or at least I think he does.  On second thought, maybe “funny” isn’t the right word.  Maybe it’s wonderful.  As you may have guessed by now, or as you may remember, his presence on this site is almost completely limited to the text.  That’s not because he’s hideously ugly, or because he’s extremely shy.  He’s rather attractive (says one rather smitten and therefore biased woman) and he is definitely not shy.  But he does like to keep his private life private, which could create a conflict of interest between the two of us.  I write about him, and us, quite frequently.  And Matt, gracious and generous man that he is, lets me.  Not once has he howled in protest that I shared too much or offered too much of his private life for public consumption.    

As I’m sure is quite obvious by now, I like writing about him and us.  I learn a lot from him, and I like to share what I’m learning with you.  By writing about our romance, I get to savor those moments again, and it keeps the memories fresh for me.  I realize that time changes our memories, and a written account is flawed in its own way too, but now, more than three years after we started seeing each other, it’s such a pleasure for me to be able to read what I wrote about us in the earlier days of our relationship.  Time changes our memories, but more importantly, it changes us.  Having some sense of what we were in the past is a marvelous thing.  Some couples take lots of photos of their adventures together; I try to write them down so that I can remember us, so that I can love who we were and who we are becoming.   

Things are a bit different for us now that we live within driving distance.  When I was in graduate school, it was always plane tickets and flight itineraries, with time breathing down our necks as our visit gently became past tense.  Those were exciting days: those new romance days; those giddy, I-can’t-wait-to-see-him days.  I loved those days.  Those were the falling-in-love days.  We had a different rhythm then.  Usually, Matt would visit me, flying in on a Friday and leaving on Sunday.  We cooked more of our meals at home; our visits were humbler affairs, once he/I/we had arrived at our destination.  We would often pop out for lunch or tea, we liked to walk along Lake Michigan into downtown Evanston, and we’d usually go shopping at Whole Foods for wine and dinner provisions.  Matt would offer to carry the groceries, which was a sweetly chivalrous act, and he never complained about my lack of a car (or lack of money either).  Sometimes we’d ride the train together back to my apartment after our little downtown excursion.  I remember there was one time, early in our dating relationship, when he was visiting me during the bitter cold days after Christmas.  I had no internet at home—such a Luddite I was back then!—and he needed to check his e-mail.  We boarded a train to go to a cafe downtown, and I sat in the window seat.  He sat down next to me, very close to me, on the attached two-person seats, and blamed it on his bulky bag, heavy with a laptop computer.  It was a silly, sweet moment, sitting so snugly between him and the window.  It was the sort of moment that feels just right in a new romance, a sign of affection and intimacy and playfulness.

Part of me misses those old days.  Things felt less certain between us, but maybe that uncertainty made our time together that much more exciting.  I knew I liked him, I knew I liked him A LOT, but I didn’t know what that meant.  So many relationships are built on the premise of commitment, and he’d already said to me, earnestly, “I am committed to you.”  I believed him.  I even knew, deep down, that I was falling for him before we started dating.  So when we actually did start dating, I didn’t know what to do with myself because all the pieces had fallen into place, and that was, oddly enough, confusing.  I think it was confusing because we think of dating as a time when we figure out how we feel about that person—what our sense of commitment and compatibility feels like.  If those things don’t need to be deciphered, then where’s the dating puzzle?  Maybe that’s just it: Matt came into my life as a self-explaining puzzle: “Here I am!  Now let me tell you how I operate.”  So many men are mysterious creatures that require frequent conversations over wine with girlfriends to figure them out.  Matt was blissfully easy to love and to understand.

Perhaps he was a little too easy, which is why it felt uncertain in the first place.  Love can’t really be this easy, can it?

Actually, yes, it can, with the right person and if you are ready for it.

Stay tuned for Part Two of this rambling essay!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Saturday Lunch, Simply Done

Saturday Lunch

I have this basic belief that whether or not you cook, you have to eat.  You simply must.  Or at least you should, because food is good for you!  All those generations of grandmothers can’t be wrong, right?  All those women who have given life to so many children—I think they were onto something.  Eating is good.  Food is life.

A lot of my cooking is of the non-recipe variety, and I’ve been enjoying the chance to share with you my lunches and dinners that are assembled using the cookbook in my head.  I have blatantly stolen that idea from Matt, who also has a cookbook in his head, which is handy when you find yourself in a kitchen in College Station, Texas, with the urge to make Spanish food.  You flip through your mental cookbook, pull out recipes for gazpacho and a little melon appetizer, and you get to work.  I love watching that man cook, even as I sigh and grumble to myself that I will never again be able to share with you a recipe of his because they are all in his head.  Such is the price one pays for cooking and eating with a man who is so adaptable to his circumstances that he tells me I can move to Nova Scotia and he’ll still visit me there.  And with the way that I am fantasizing about cold weather and cozy cooking these days, let me tell you that the urge to fly north is hard to ignore.  This polar bear, the one talking to you right now, is melting in the triple-digit heat we’ve been blessed with as of late.

But I’m making do with what Texas has to offer right now.  June is tomato season in Texas, and last weekend, Matt and I bought an estimated three pounds of tomatoes, just because I couldn’t get enough.  I’ve been working on that bumper crop, and for lunch today I topped toasted whole-grainy bread with a mayonnaise-mustard spread and coarsely chopped tomatoes which had been sprinkled with salt and pepper.  No olive oil today because of the mayonnaise.  It was nice—the crunch, the creaminess, the drippy juiciness of it all.  One could almost live on tomatoes and bread, with the right arsenal of condiments and seasonings to mix things up properly.

Alongside my toast, I ate some very crunchy celery sticks and a scoop of chickpea salad.  That salad was assembled last night, a mélange of chickpeas, a homemade honey-mustard dressing, finely diced red onion, and shredded pepper jack cheese.  It’s a riff on Molly’s famous chickpea salad, which for some strange reason I don’t like—I think the Parmesan doesn’t work for my palate.  It’s odd, I know, but one must respect her own palate.

Finally, when coming in from the heat, I require something cold in a glass to sip while I contemplate lunch.  Today I made a simple vanilla-banana malt.  I love a good malt, and this one was very good indeed: a large frozen banana, a cup of milk, a tablespoon of malt powder, and a few drops of vanilla extract.  Buzz to smoothness in the blender, and you’ve got a sweet, creamy, healthy milkshake.  It’s amazing to me what a tablespoon of malt powder can do to make a blender drink seem really indulgent.  I’m not a big ice cream person, but I love shakes and malts made with frozen bananas because they offer a thick creaminess and luscious sweetness just like ice cream does.  My malt was enough like dessert that I passed on a brownie, even though I’ve eaten one after lunch for the past two days.  A little chocolate is like putting a period at the end of your meal: this lunch is done.

And for today, so am I.  Happy weekend, everyone!

Thursday, June 16, 2011


Yellow Scarf


Thursday Night Tomatoes


I feel like I dropped the ball last week, and for that, I’m sorry.  I almost didn’t write this post tonight, too, but then I was re-reading my own words about that delicious black bean soup, the one with the roasted vegetables that my friend Ammie says I should try with sour cream spiked with toasted ground cumin, and I missed my blog.  I missed you, all of you, my sweet readers.  My life has been hectic and overwhelming lately, which is why I dropped the ball.  Things are…in flux for me these days.  It’s hard for me to write about it, because I honestly do not know where the line is between “okay to share” and “shooting self in foot.”  It’s about my job, which means it’s about how I spend my days, and what my future holds, and where I’ll be living in six months.  It’s complicated.  It’s difficult for me that I can’t write about it here.  Then again, it can be nice to have a place where I don’t have to talk about work or think about work.

Anyway, I wanted to stop by to tell you that one, I’m alive, and two, I’m cooking.  Tonight I thought about telling you about a frittata recipe that I really like, a slight adaptation of Mollie Katzen’s recipe in Sunlight Cafe, but then I decided that for tonight, saying hello would be sufficient.  But I did bring you pictures!  Two from my weekend, a lovely weekend with the sweetest man I know, and one from tonight.  I want to tell you more about my weekend, and that frittata, and these cornbread crepe thingies that go really well with last week’s black bean soup.  I also want to tell you my vegetarian story, which was supposed to be the capstone to my Veg Bootcamp series, the one that seemed to end so abruptly.  It’s not over, people, and I’m not done here.  I’m just taking a little breath, to refocus and recalibrate.  Thanks for bearing with me here, for being with me here.  Truly, writing this blog—and doing all the cooking and photographing that happens before the writing—is such fun, such joy.  I hope to carve out some time this weekend to write, but if that doesn’t happen, please don’t worry.  I’m probably just trying to stay calm in the middle of a hard time.

See you in a few days…maybe!  And happy cooking, always.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Eating is Believing: Kate’s Story

I really love nothing more than a weekend afternoon when I can curl up with my laptop and read the blog archives of a newly-discovered blog.  I am a woman who craves stories and good writing, and when I find a blog filled with both of those things, I can spend the day learning about another person’s life.  This behavior is, of course, rather voyeuristic, but in a sense, all autobiographical literature invites voyeurs.  It’s just the nature of the genre, and while I generally try not to be the creepy lady who spies on her neighbors, I cannot hide my love for a funny, well-written personal blog.  And if that blogger happens to be into many of the same things as I am?  Awesome.

I discovered Kate O. of Effing the Ineffable via S.’s blog Simply Bike, and it was love at first read.  Kate’s blog is funny and inspiring, and though I’ve never met her in person, I think Kate herself is fantastic.  She writes frequently about vegan cooking and baking, which is right up my alley, and her posts about the various races she’s run have given me chills with their eloquence.  She’s devoted to a lifestyle filled with good food and good exercise, and now that I’m a regular reader of her blog, it always makes me happy when I see she’s got a new post.

I’m so excited to share with you a guest post from Kate O. about her journey to a vegan diet.  And by “diet,” I really mean way of life.  Kate’s perseverance, whether when completing her first marathon or figuring out how to be vegan in the deep South, is a lesson for us all.  We’ve got to stick to our guns and make it work if we believe in it.  And as Kate will tell us, believing is the first step toward something bigger and more powerful than what we are today.

* * * 

Kate writes…

My first job in high school was at a hamburger joint where we did all our own butchering and meat grinding. All I will say about that is this: working there, I first felt like experimenting with vegetarianism. In high school and college, I was what I called an "aesthetic vegetarian"—I avoided meat mainly because being around it so much had made it seem icky to me. I didn't have any other real motivation to eat a plant-based diet, and I was certainly not very thoughtful about what I was eating. Macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, French fries, and cheese pizza made up a pretty significant part of my food intake. I do not recommend this plan.

In later years, I started eating meat again, off and on, but I also found myself cooking a lot of vegetarian meals at home, too: experimenting with tofu, beans, or even making a quick and easy veggie burger when in need of a simple meal. By the time I decided to cut out meat again, it wouldn't be that difficult for me.

The second time around, though, I had a lot more motivation. It was 2008, I had just finished graduate school and started my new job. Everywhere I turned I was hearing about the possibility of positive change. In the midst of hearing and thinking about political change, I decided I wanted to investigate change in my own life. I wanted to do something for myself that would have a positive effect not only on me, but also on the world around me. What on earth would fit that bill?

csa vegetables

My thoughts moved in the direction of environmental sustainability. I began looking into ways to make my life in my new town and new apartment a little greener. I wasn't satisfied with just changing my light bulbs and finding the recycling center, though. During this time, I also started looking into the way food choices can affect the environment. If you're reading this post then you probably either know about vegetarianism and the environment already and/or you are curious. In spite of my history with vegetarianism, though, I actually knew nothing about its environmental benefits. Learning about the hazardous effects of large-scale animal farming in terms of carbon use, air quality, water quality, and land use was absolutely shocking to me. SHOCKING. Animal farming was worse for the environment than all forms of transportation combined? Holy hell.

My research took me through a lot of the equally shocking facts about animal treatment, which I don't need to recap here. This was deeply moving to me as well.

I also had health on my mind. As I read about the benefits to the environment and to the animals, I also had to wonder if there would be equal effects on my own body. I was carrying around a lot of extra weight after a rough time in graduate school when I used food as an unhealthy coping mechanism. I harbored secret fantasies that cutting out animal products would help me effortlessly drop these pounds. Spoiler alert: a vegetarian or vegan diet is not a weight loss plan.

While dropping meat-eating (and then eventually eggs and dairy as well) did not instantly reverse all of the unhealthy eating I had done in the past, it did instantly make me feel a whole lot better about myself. It made me more conscious of what I was putting in my body and where it was coming from. I knew I was on my way to finding the positive change I'd been seeking. I explored local, organic produce options in my area and joined a CSA. I found restaurants in my small Alabama town that serve vegan food and began to support them. I introduced my friends to vegan cupcakes and cookies with great success.


Along the way I did wind up losing that extra graduate school weight as well, but the details of that are a story for another time.  I have no doubt that a plant-based diet helped me get there, though. I was looking for change and that is exactly what I found. Opening the doors to change in just one area of my life allowed and encouraged me to do so in other areas: I began running again after a several-years-long hiatus, started commuting to work by bike, explored cooking in new ways, and on and on. Changing one thing was like a rush of fresh air that invigorated every other aspect of my life.

You can find Kate blogging regularly at Effing the Ineffable or if you’d like to see more of her lovely photography, check out her Flickr page.  I regularly stalk her at both locations.  (Kate, now you know the truth!)  Also, I’d like one of those cupcakes up there, please.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011


I mentioned yesterday that I was lucky enough to buy some tomatoes at the farmers’ market on Friday night.  It was an unexpected opportunity, but I am ever-prepared to buy awesome produce when it shows up in front of me.  After a conversation with the friendly tomato seller, I pedaled home from Bryan with a bag filled with tiny tomatoes and larger plum tomatoes.  Then I had the very difficult task of figuring out what to make with my tomato treasure.

Local Tiny Tomatoes

I was feeling really indecisive about the whole cooking question.  Do I make something new?  Do I reach for a trusted recipe?  Or do I just eat the tomatoes and enjoy them in their raw, juicy state?  So far, it’s been a little of column A and a little of column C.  I suppose my indecision has almost turned into a case of “one of each, please.”  Which is okay, because I bought enough tomatoes to cover all the possibilities.

Saturday morning was a blur of experiments and grocery-shopping, and it wasn’t until after lunch that I felt sufficiently calm to think about what to make for dinner.  I was in the mood to cook, and I wanted something that would be hearty and not too fussy, something that would be flavorful without requiring too much effort from me.  The idea of tomato-black bean soup popped into my head like a light bulb, and I reached for the cookbook on the top of my kitchen table stack: so easy by Ellie Krieger.  I flipped to the index, found a recipe for roasted tomato and black bean soup on page 205, and boom, I knew what I was making for dinner.

The recipe calls for roasting onions, tomatoes, and garlic together, and though that roasting step forced my air-conditioner to work even harder, the result was worth the heat.  This soup is marvelously flavorful—the roasted vegetables and smart combination of spices work well against a backdrop of black beans and canned crushed tomatoes.  I think what I like about this soup is not that it’s such a novel idea—plenty of soup recipes call for roasting vegetables first—but that it’s so well-balanced.  Enough salt, enough spice, enough tomato.  It also has a deep flavor, a complex flavor, which I think is largely a result of the roasted vegetables.  It’s the sort of soup that I think Matt would really like, as he appreciates deep, well-balanced, and perfectly salted dishes.  He’s sort of a challenging person to cook for, between my being vegetarian and his savory-salty-sour-loving palate.  But sometimes, I think a recipe hits the bull’s-eye for both of us, and this might be one of them.  Even if it’s not, I’ll make it again just for me.

Roasted Tomato and Black Bean Soup

Roasted Tomato and Black Bean Soup

Adapted from so easy by Ellie Krieger

Serves 4-6 as a main course

Make sure you taste before adjusting the final salt levels of this dish.  Canned tomato products and soup stocks (homemade or bought) can vary a lot in their saltiness, so it’s best to taste, salt, then taste again.

Finally, this soup is really good warm or at room temperature.  To cool your hot soup quickly, put a sturdy soup bowl in the freezer while you are cooking the soup.  After the soup is done, put a metal spoon in the cold bowl and ladle some soup into it.  Then remove the spoon and tuck the bowl into the freezer or the refrigerator for about ten minutes.  The soup will still be quite warm when it comes out, but this takes the searing heat off of it.  You can also, of course, chill the soup for longer to bring it closer to room temperature.  The leftovers make for great desk-side lunches.

A generous 1 1/2 cups tiny tomatoes (cherry or grape)

1 large onion, chopped into large pieces (about 1-1.5 inches)

3 cloves garlic, peeled

2 tbsp. olive oil

1 tsp. salt, or to taste

1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper, or to taste

1 14.5-oz. can fire-roasted crushed tomatoes

1 14.5-oz. can black beans, drained and rinsed

4 cups vegetable stock

1 1/2 tsp. ground cumin

1 tsp. chili powder

1/4 tsp. hot sauce, such as Tabasco

Optional toppings: sour cream and fresh cilantro leaves

1)  Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.  In a large bowl, toss together the tomatoes, onion, garlic, olive oil, 1/2 tsp. salt, and 1/4 tsp. pepper.  Spread the mixture on a large baking sheet.  Roast the vegetables for 35-40 minutes, stirring once.  Look for these signs that your vegetables are done: the onions have browned, the tomatoes are collapsing, and the garlic is softened.

2)  Meanwhile, in a soup pot, stir together the crushed tomatoes, black beans, vegetable stock, cumin, chili powder, and the remaining 1/4 tsp. pepper.  After the roasted vegetables are finished roasting, add them to the pot.  Bring the whole thing to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes. 

3)  Blend the soup in batches.  Stir the hot sauce into the soup.  Taste and add more salt and/or pepper if it needs it.

4)  Serve in deep bowls, chilled a bit if you like (see headnote).  Top with sour cream and fresh cilantro if you like.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

To-Do List, with Dinner Recommendation

My to-do list this morning looked something like this:

1)  Leave house at 8 AM.  Bike to work and enjoy cool(er) morning air and less sweaty bike ride.

2)  Survive epic 9 AM meeting with boss.  Convince him of project’s worthiness.

3)  Try to keep chin up if #2 doesn’t work.

4)  Tell sweet blog readers about amazing roasted tomato and black bean soup from Saturday’s evening in the kitchen.

Happily, I can tell you now that #1 and #2 did get done, and things are feeling a whole lot rosier about my work situation today.  I know it sounds like I’m being all secretive, and I am, but I’ll just say that after weeks of anxiety, I think some progress was made today.  I’m feeling more optimistic about the next few months.  And if nothing else, the rest of this week is going to be a breeze compared to the last two days.  Matt's coming to visit me on Friday, and if I play my cards right, we’ll visit the farmers’ market on Saturday and then he’ll cook me dinner.  It’s pretty nice having him around.

So that’s the plan for this weekend.  Tonight, however, I am totally fried.  That roasted tomato and black bean soup deserves more love and affection than I can give it right now.  I’m so tired that if Matt were here, I’d probably ignore him in favor of watching Glee episodes on Netflix because I just need to relax and zone out for an evening.  It’s just been two of those days, you know?  In lieu of a new soup recipe, how about I offer you a dinner recommendation?  This one’s really good, I promise.

Sunday Night Dinner

First, get a batch of Daine’s Mom’s Slow-Cooked Green Beans going.  If you haven’t tried that recipe yet, now is your chance!  The recipe is vegan, totally delicious, and totally good for you.  And I highly recommend Daine’s suggestion to add toasted sesame seeds to the final dish.  There’s some sort of combinatorial magic between the sesame seeds, almonds, and the soy sauce-glazed green beans—it’s addictive.  If you can, make a double batch of the green beans.  It’s the kind of dish that makes you sad when it’s all gone.

While the beans are slow-cooking their way to awesomeness, make a batch of rice.  Top it with crumbled feta cheese and slices of juicy tomato.  If you live in the South like me, you might be able to find local tomatoes at the farmers’ market or in your own backyard garden.  Mine came from the First Friday farmers’ market, and they were amazing—now I remember why I miss having easy access to a farmers’ market.  The tomatoes alone would be worth the drive or bike ride.

Finally, for dessert, eat something fruity.  It’s best if you have some leftover apple-pear crumble on hand, but you could more than make do with some sugared strawberries spooned over a slice of lemon cake.  You just want something that speaks of the harvest, whether it’s the last of the winter apples or spring’s berries.

See you tomorrow, friends, with a can of black beans and some tiny tomatoes.

Monday, June 6, 2011


My friend Christopher often gets into friendly debates around the lab.  His use of rhetoric is quite good, and sometimes he gets all ranty about language.  He likes to point out that language matters.  And he’s right: if two people don’t agree on what a particular term means, then they are not arguing about the same thing every time one of them uses that term.

In the same regard, science suffers from a certain amount of necessary simplification.  Science is complicated!  And it’s a living profession, with unanswered questions and many people pursuing evidence to support some version of “the truth.”  Sometimes, the predominant view in the vegetarian community runs against my scientific opinion.  An example of this is the use of animals in research.  Some animal-rights activists like to argue that we can do all our research in non-animal models, such as cells growing in a dish, so we don’t need to use mice or other furry creatures any more!  I disagree.  Cells in a dish are a good place to start, but they are not a whole animal, and they certainly aren’t a human being.  We need animal models to validate and affirm the conclusions we make from simpler models.  If you don’t agree, perhaps you’d be willing to volunteer yourself as a test subject for novel drugs that have not been tested in animals?  The drugs might kill you—we don’t know.  But we have to have a way to find out, and it’s either mice or you.  Take your pick.

Anyway, I’m digressing.  I wanted to say something about a recent Veg Bootcamp newsletter.  Here is an excerpt: 

Meat substitutes are bona fide health foods.
BUSTED: In the same way that meat wasn't meant to be a human's primary food source, neither are meat's vegetarian doppelgangers designed to be consumed in mass quantities.  Like other processed foods, they should be eaten in moderation, but they certainly can play a part in a healthy diet.

(End excerpt.)

I’ll be the first to say yes, meat substitutes are probably not great for health.  They can be really tasty, but I think of them as an occasional treat.  Soyrizo is yummy, and so are fake chicken patties, but I tend to buy a package of fake meat once a month, at the most.  The longer I practice vegetarianism, the easier it is to make a meal out of “real food”—food that grows from the ground and is minimally processed.  I almost hate to say it, but I suspect that real meat is healthier for us than fake meat.

But I disagree with the way that the “BUSTED” answer explains meat-eating.  It says, “Meat wasn't meant to be a human's primary food source.”  This statement is not an accurate description of human evolution, at least from my perspective.  In evolution, there is no “meant to.”  Either an organism survives and reproduces, or it doesn’t.  If the organism did survive and reproduce, then whatever it ate was a successful diet, evolutionarily speaking.  Evolution is not directed; it’s not intelligent design.  It just is.  It just happens.  I’m not a cultural anthropologist, and I don’t study human evolution in a direct way, but my understanding is that hunting and gathering were the ways in which our ancestors fed themselves.  Meat was probably an important part of the diet.  Was it the “primary food source?”  I don’t know.  But I would not be surprised if there were seasons during which meat was the main source of calories, such as in extreme northern latitudes, when it’s easier to find seals and reindeer than it is to find green plants.

I still prefer a vegetarian diet, with the occasional fake meat product, but I have to recognize that for me, it’s more about a certain internal consistency and not about health.  Science, including food science, is complicated and sometimes we have to walk a nuanced line, marked with caveats.  I try to make peace with that level of complexity.  And I keep learning.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Breakfast for Lunch

It’s a good thing I have a well-stocked spice rack and an adventurous palate, because I can’t go anywhere right now.  For now, and probably for the summer, I am tethered to the lab.  I make daily visits to collect data, and I stretch my experiment-running into Saturday morning so I can squeak just a little more data into my week.  This schedule can be exhausting, and it often is, but I’m trying to be positive about it.  To borrow Kate’s phrase, I’m just doing it because it’s what needs to be done.  To keep my sanity, I’m looking forward to two trips in the fall, one to Michigan and one to San Antonio.  It’s going to be a long summer, certainly, but there are leafy trees and cool Midwestern breezes at the end.

I am happier with my adjusted morning schedule, especially on a day like today.  I went to the lab this morning, collected my data, and after lunch, I spent another hour or two working.  Now, I’m done with my work for the day, and I’m free to enjoy my Sunday.  I’m also free to continue cleaning the apartment because Matt is coming to visit on Friday, and I always use his impending presence as an excuse to tidy up the place.  I like how my home itself feels ready to welcome him, especially when there are birthday packages wrapped in colorful stripes and a card with his name on it sitting on my coffee table.  Walt Whitman said it best: “And when I thought how my dear friend my lover was on his way coming, O then I was happy.”


Until then, though, there are meals to be eaten!  The absence of my special gentleman is no excuse to go hungry.  After all, I must keep up my strength.  On Saturday, after a morning of lab work and grocery-shopping, I tucked into a lunch of leftover Chakchouka, or what was at least a reasonable approximation of Chakchouka: eggs poached in spicy tomato sauce.  I love this dish, but the truth is that I think of it less as a recipe and more as a technique: eggs cooked in a well-seasoned bath of tomatoes and other vegetables.  Onions and garlic are a must, and though I’d usually say that cumin is too, this time I went with basil and coriander, which turned out to be a lovely variation.

Breakfast for Lunch

I ate my sort-of Chakchouka with cucumbers and some pepper jack cheese, and I washed it all down with a mug of coffee, which was a terrific pick-me-up.  Between the eggs and the coffee, it felt like breakfast for lunch, and eating lunch at home really drove home the point that it was Saturday, thank goodness.

I should say a few more words about Chakchouka because I think it’s a terrifically useful technique to have in your repertoire.  Basically, you just need well-seasoned and somewhat saucy tomatoes.  I’ve written before about using leftover soup to make a Chakchouka-like dish, and that’s a great way to squeeze another meal or two out of a cup of soup.  You heat up your saucy tomatoes in a large pan—I’d recommend something between 10 and 12 inches in diameter—and when things are bubbly, you make a little well in the sauce for each egg.  I’d go with 2-4 eggs.  Then pop a lid on it and let the eggs poach/braise/cook for 4-6 minutes or until they are cooked to your liking.  On my old stove, 6 minutes was perfect, but on my new stove, I had to let the eggs cook for a few minutes longer.  You just lift the lid, check the eggs, and continue cooking if needed.  Chakchouka is pretty unfussy, as far as cooking goes, and it’s terrific with toast.  I forgot to tell you about the toast!  I had toast with my lunch on Saturday, so it really was breakfast, in all the best ways.

Chakchouka is also, apparently, unfussy about its own spelling, as I see that other people call it Shakshuka.  I’ve been using Moosewood’s spelling, so if it’s wrong, I blame them.  Actually, I don’t blame them because it still tastes really good.  For those of you who’d like a more precise recipe, check out Jess’s version here or Deb’s version over here.  I haven’t tried their recipes, but rarely do either of these women let me down.  I can trust my dinner with them.  I bet you can too.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Morning Glory

On the advice of a few of my favorite bloggers, Kate and Chrissy, I’ve been trying to shift my schedule so that I get my day started a little earlier in the morning.  They both advocate morning running, and I can see why: in summertime Texas, or really, I imagine, anywhere in the South, early morning is the best time to be outside.  The day heats up so fast and so fiercely that there’s no time to lose in the morning.  Carpe diem! 

To be honest, I haven’t started morning running yet.  I am biking frequently to work, so that tends to be my outside work-out.  Also, things are, shall we say, stressful at work right now, and I find the rhythms of the bike to be very soothing, and I’m clinging to that comfort, even though I know that running is also quite calming for me.  Anyway, my goal these days is to leave the house around 8:30 AM, especially on the days when I’m biking to work.  At that reasonable morning hour, the day feels new and fresh and welcoming.  The sunshine is bright, but the inferno that is summertime Texas hasn’t yet incinerated the day.  I get a little sweaty during my ride, but it’s nothing that a few paper towels in the ladies’ room can’t clean up.  And best of all, I get to bask in that lovely feeling that I’ve already done something healthy for my body, something that wicks away stress and helps me calm down and focus on the day’s tasks.  It’s really wonderful.

On Friday morning, I took the bus rather than the bike, but I did catch the 8:38 bus, so I got to experience the pleasant quality of early morning.  Here’s what my morning looked like:

Strawberry Oatmeal for Breakfast

New Dress or Me Dressed as a Creamsicle

Strawberry oatmeal, a new dress that makes me feel like a creamsicle—it was a good start to the day.  The dress, in case you are curious, is from Five Bamboo, a company I’ve mentioned before.  I love this company and the gorgeous, soft, bamboo-fiber clothing they make.  When I was a graduate student, I would not have had the money to invest in supporting the sustainable textile industry.  One of the perks of my current job is that I do have a little more income to invest in my values.  Now, you may be thinking that it’s hardly a sacrifice to spend money on pretty dresses for myself, and you’d be right.  But in a culture where speed and convenience seem to be the driving values, I’d say that our consumer choices are a powerful way to say NO to things that we don’t like.  I don’t want to live my life in a “throwaway” consumer culture, so I say YES to spending money in ways that demand an investment in something bigger, longer-lasting, and more meaningful than speed and convenience.

I say yes to Five Bamboo.  Also, I really like the Elusive dress in black!  My wallet says we’ll have to wait on that one.

Happy weekend, dear readers!  A huge congratulations to my blog friend Chrissy on her acceptance to the MFA program at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington!  I’m just thrilled for you, my dear.  Thrilled.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Salsa for Sausage Eaters

My friend Shawn Marie hates when I say sappy things about her, so this time, I’ll try to keep my sentimentalism to myself.  I’ll stay focused on the food, which is easy with Shawn Marie because she’s an awesome cook.  As you’ll see below, she’s got strong opinions about food, and though we don’t always agree, I like her feisty personality.  I always have.  She’s always thinking, always trying new things.  We’ve been friends for over ten years, and we were lucky enough to have spent a bunch of those years together in Chicago, roaming the city and surviving graduate school together.  Now she lives in Ohio, I live in Texas, and we catch up in the form of marathon phone calls.  To say that I miss her is an understatement, and I miss her food almost as much as I miss her.  She’s taught me so much, and today, she’s sharing with us her salsa recipe and her beautiful food photography.  One day, I swear, we will eat salsa together again!  For now, we swap recipes and stories and remember all the good times we’ve shared.

* * *

Shawn Marie writes…

I used to be a vegetarian.

When I announce this to groups of Ohioans, I usually get cheers, as though I had been to the brink, peered over—and then had come back safely to the side of sanity and reason.  In fact, I usually only tell people when they’ve either confessed their own vegetarianism (really, this happened once), that they secretly love tofu (ok, so this hasn’t happened yet) or have made some particularly disparaging comment about vegetarians.  The last is the most frequent and the most futile.  Really, most locals suspect I am a liberal and cannot be trusted when I bring up unwieldy subjects such as vegetarianism.  Giving up such inconvenient beliefs is a sign of adulthood.  Some of them have gone so far as to personally take credit for changing my mistaken ways.

Logistically, it wouldn’t be too hard to be vegetarian here.  I can cook just fine.  What is hard is being a guest in the homes of meat-eaters, many of whom are coworkers.  Summer is especially tricky, since grilling is a season here—brats pop up with asparagus in the spring and the season lasts well into November.  This is a land of sausage-eaters.  They are committed to their calling.  No tofu-dog will sway them.

Honestly, in a throwdown between say, a House of Meats fresh pork brat and a Tofurky Italian Sausage, both fresh of the grill, the House of Meats will knock the Tofurky out.  Since I cannot prepare fake meats tasty enough to take on fresh, local sausage—and let’s face it, I’m not convinced this is even possible—and since I compulsively have to bring food when I visit anyone’s house or event, and since I still don’t know much about actually cooking meat, I tend to bring tasty vegetable dishes to the sausage eaters.  Things like caprese, tapenade, homemade sauerkraut, and salsa.  Sausage eaters sometimes find these items odd at first, but they are usually game for trying them, and they usually come back for more.

Admittedly, salsa is pretty easy to love.  It is hot, sour, hopefully garlicky, and is fundamentally a sauce—which is to say, it complements other things nicely.  The salsa I prepare here is henceforth Stoplight Salsa.  Rainbow salsa, which can be obtained by subbing an orange bell pepper for one of the tomatoes and a serrano instead of the habernero, is also quite tasty.



3-4 medium tomatoes (these are vine-ripened but I just get whatever smells best)

1-2 bell peppers

2 cloves garlic (roasted if you prefer)

(add onion if you must)

1-2 haberneros or other hot peppers

2 limes, juiced plus lime juice to taste

Salt to taste


Dice the pepper until it is fine.  The hotter your pepper of choice, the more important this step is.  With haberneros, I dice them to about 1/8”.


Put the peppers in a bowl and then salt them.  While they are salting, chop garlic and add it to the peppers.  Squeeze the two times of their juice and add the juice to the garlic and hot pepper.  This is especially important if you hope to enjoy the salsa the same day you make it.


Now, chop the tomatoes and add them to the mix.  Then add the peppers and cilantro.  I like to pile them on top of each other so they make pretty layers.


Then, I like to destroy the layers.  In this case, entropy is tastier than the alternative.


Note: Sausage eaters can be taught to prepare their own salsa.  This second batch was prepared by a genuine sausage eater.  Most of it was enjoyed by that same sausage eater.  On occasion, they will take to the salsa so much that they just eat it with beans and chips and don’t bother with the meats on a regular basis anymore.