Monday, August 29, 2011

Late-Summer Kitchen Resolutions

Even though it was 108 degrees here yesterday, I’m going to declare that we are in the home stretch: summer is almost over.

(For those of you who had to deal with Hurricane Irene, I’m really sorry.  Though I live in Texas, we are far enough inland that hurricanes tend not to bother us too much.  But to Chrissy and any readers who were stuck inside, or underground, because of Irene, I hope you are okay.)

It’s been an outrageously hot month for us down here: over 100 degrees F for most of August, according to my sources.  That’s beyond hot.  That’s an inferno, right outside your front door.  It’s heat the likes of which I’ve never encountered in the North.  I’m living in a firepit.  These days, I dream of winter, of an unfamiliar silence during which the air-conditioner doesn’t hum.  I dream of cool mornings and hot oatmeal, putting layers under my summer dresses and bike rides that leave me feeling refreshed and not dripping with sweat.  I dream of fall, of putting away my shorts and pulling out my tights.  I dream of hot apple cider, simmered with spices and ladled into mugs that may or may not be spiked with a shot of rum.

But most of all, I dream of the end of August.  And that’s just two days away.  I am so happy.

In the spirit of new starts—a new month, a new season—I’ve decided to make two kitchen resolutions to light a little fire under my behind.  To illustrate the first, I present to you this rather scary picture of my kitchen a few weeks ago:

Oh My


I’m not very good at cleaning up the kitchen after every meal.  I do some clean-up, but inevitably there are still dirty dishes in the sink when I wander off to do something else.  It’s a bad habit, I know, but it accompanies a really good habit, which is cooking at home.  Almost all of my meals are home-cooked, so my kitchen sees a lot of action.  And I really do love to cook.  This weekend, with a soup bubbling on the stove and a cake batter coming together on the countertop, I was just filled with a sense of well-being, of happy productivity.  But before my cooking session, I made myself spend a healthy chunk of time cleaning up all the dirty dishes, the ones that started to pile up on me late in the week.  It felt good to make that mess go away.

For my kitchen resolution, I’m taking baby steps.  Twice a week, I’m going to tackle whatever random mess is in the kitchen sink.  I’m going to wash everything until I have an empty sink.  Twice a week.  It’s a modest goal, but like I said: baby steps.

My second resolution is to work on emptying out the freezer.  I have a lot of food that I’ve frozen, such as last year’s cranberries, some very ripe bananas, and okra from Christopher’s garden.  I’d like to eat my way through that stash to make room for the fall harvest.  Inevitably, I’m going to end up wanting to freeze more cranberries and stash more pumpkin puree away for the winter.  I’d like to have room to do that, so I’d better make room now.

I’m happy to report that I’ve already started on the second resolution: I thawed a bag of pumpkin puree from last year.  Tonight I simmered a big scoop of it on the stovetop, then dressed it with maple syrup, butter, and a few pinches of salt.  It was delicious—earthy and rich and a little haunting.  The perfect prelude to autumn, which is just around the corner.

Do you have any kitchen resolutions?  How do you keep your cooking space from turning into a disaster zone?  Do share your secrets—this messy cook is all ears!

Sunday, August 28, 2011

A Humble Little Bowl

Last night I ate a wonderful, comfort-foods dinner: a vegetable soup, pureed, swirled with yogurt, and topped with shredded cheese, almost like a baked potato in soup form; crunchy romaine lettuce, eaten in pure green form—no dressing, no nothing, just leaves; and a chocolate raspberry pudding cake, a Nigella Lawson recipe that I’d been eyeing for a long time and finally made into a kitchen reality.

My First Cake Baked in a Springform Pan!

To be honest, I thought the cake would steal the show.  How could it not?  A dense, fudgy cake, rich with chocolate and studded with raspberries, “like glinting, mud-covered garnets,” as Nigella says.  I love the combination of chocolate and raspberry.  It’s a match made in heaven, with the fruity tartness of the berries cutting through the palate-coating richness of chocolate.  But to be honest, while the cake was tasty enough, and while I plan to eat another slice tonight for dessert, I’m not sure I’d make this cake again.  Or if I did, I would make some changes.  It wasn’t sweet enough for my taste, for one thing.  It’s made with coffee, so it’s more like a mocha raspberry cake, and I think the bitterness of the coffee dulls the sweetness.  Another thing is that the cake was more cake-like than I expected.  I was hoping for a bit of a molten quality, a pudding quality, so I think I’d underbake this a bit, 40 minutes instead of 45 in the oven.  The cake was pretty solid at 45 minutes.

Like I said, I’ll eat my cake and not complain because after all, it’s still chocolate and raspberries and oh man, it’s that time of the month when chocolate practically becomes its own food group at my table.  But I should mention that making the cake was really quite fun.  I got to use my springform pan for the first time (I’ve only owned it for, oh, three years now?), and it worked beautifully: no leaks!  And my cake came out easily after its requisite cooling time.  Also, raspberries!  They’re gorgeous!  And this cake features a layer of them, scattered on top of half the cake batter and then covered with the remaining batter.  Putting the layers of cake together in their springform pan was my favorite part.  Eating the cake was my second favorite part.  Washing all the dishes was my least favorite part.

It turns out that the best part of dinner was my rather understated baked potato in soup form.  The recipe comes from Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home, a much-loved cookbook with some fantastic soup recipes.  I’ve made this soup before and liked it quite a bit, but yesterday, while wandering around the hippie food store, thinking vaguely of dinner and looking at yellow squash, I was reminded of the recipe and decided it would make for an easy, tasty, and soothing dinner.  I wasn’t entirely sure I’d be able to remember all the ingredients for a soup I’d made once, but I felt confident that I could improvise if I forgot something.  I knew it called for yellow squash, and potatoes, and carrots, and cheese, but what else?  Onions?  And that was all I could remember.

Which, as it turns out, was enough.

Clearly I liked the soup

This soup appears like a humble little bowl, but I find it absolutely delightful.  The flavors are really well balanced: the starchy mildness of the vegetables, really good vegetable stock, the punchy brightness of yogurt, and to top it all off, the savory melt of shredded cheese.  The original recipe calls for stirring the cheese into the soup, but last night, when I was lazy and didn’t feel like shredding an entire cup of cheese, I just sprinkled a handful over one bowl and I loved the effect.  I feel like the cheese has more presence when it’s not melted into the soup—it’s more pronounced, with a distinct texture and flavor apart from the soup.

Happy cooking, friends.

Potato-Yogurt Soup

Adapted from Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home (the original recipe is Golden Cheddar Cheese Soup)

Makes 4 servings

2 tbsp. vegetable oil

2 medium white or yellow onions, chopped

2 medium potatoes, thinly sliced (I like red potatoes or Yukon Golds here)

1 medium or large carrot, sliced

1 medium yellow summer squash, halved lengthwise and sliced

1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper (I didn’t measure this but used a lot of pepper and called it good)

1/8 tsp. tumeric (a big pinch)

2 cups vegetable stock

1/2 cup yogurt

1/2 cup water

Grated cheese, such as cheddar or jack, for sprinkling on top

1)  In a soup pot, heat the oil over medium to medium-high heat.  Add the onions and cook for several minutes, until they soften.

2)  Add the potatoes, carrots, yellow squash, black pepper, and tumeric to the onions.  Cook for a few minutes, stirring frequently.

3)  Add the vegetable stock, bring to a bubble, and simmer for 15-20 minutes, or until the vegetables are very soft.

4)  Turn off the heat and let the soup sit for a few minutes.  Then blend it to smoothness in a blender or using an immersion blender, if you have one.

5)  Mix the yogurt with the water and stir to combine.  Pour the yogurt mixture into the blended soup and stir.  Taste for seasonings (salt and pepper) and adjust if needed.

6)  Ladle the soup into bowls and sprinkle the top with shredded cheese.  You could also put more shredded cheese on the table and let your guests doctor their bowls themselves.  Some people might even reach for the hot sauce, but I think this soup is perfect as is. 

Friday, August 26, 2011

On Perseverance

Today I decided that it’s time for me to write a really honest post about what is happening behind the scenes around here.  I want to share my still-unfolding story with you because that’s what writers do: they tell stories, sometimes other people’s stories and sometimes their own story.  This is my story.

It’s been a really hard summer.  In June, I received an evaluation at work in which I was told that my performance “needed improvement.”  I was informed that if my performance did not improve by October of 2011, my position may be eliminated.  In a nutshell, I’ve struggled in my research since I started my postdoc in October 2009.  My main project, the project on which my advisor and I thought I was guaranteed success, failed to go anywhere.  It failed to thrive.  I spent over a year on that project, trying to make some progress, but all I got was negative data and frustration.  This type of failure is really common in science—it happens all the goddamn time.  At the end of last summer, when it became clear that this “surefire project” was becoming elusive, I started working on a secondary project.  On that secondary project, I also generated a lot of negative results (which, again, is very normal in science!), but very slowly, I started building a project.  I started seeing an interesting phenomenon, one that repeated itself, and I thought, Could this be real?

The new project has had its share of ups and downs, but there was a trickle of interesting data that kept me intrigued, so I continued to work on it.  For a variety of reasons, the work on that project was slow, but I kept plugging away at it.  The aforementioned “guaranteed success” project faded from my everyday thoughts, but it didn’t fade from my advisor’s thoughts when he did my annual evaluation.  Because I had failed to make progress on that particular project, and because my advisor and I had been going through a rough patch, he gave me a really negative evaluation.  To be honest, I had been expecting a negative evaluation because things weren’t going so well between us, but still, when I finally held the document in my hands, its words shook me hard and long.

I did what anyone would do: I cried.  I got mad, I felt sorry for myself, and I panicked.  I talked to friends.  Then I got to work: I wrote a rebuttal to my evaluation, using a rational, evidence-based approach in my responses.  I met with my advisor a few days later, bringing my rebuttal with me.  We hashed it out, quite calmly even, and we came up with a plan for the summer.  Then it was time for me to show and prove: show him that I could do the experiments and prove that my project and I were worth our spot (and funding!) in the lab.

So I got to work, and I worked hard.  I was in the lab seven days a week, trying to crank it out.  I’m still in that phase now, though I’d say things feel more optimistic to me than they did three months ago.  One thing that I decided against doing, even though it would have been reasonable to do it, was launch into a job search.  I thought long and hard about whether I should just find another job and walk away from this one.  There were two good reasons not to start a job search right away.  The first and best reason is that I liked my project.  I still do.  And I wanted to give it my best shot to see if I could build a story out of it.  The second is that four months is not a lot of time in the research world.  Blink and four months will have passed.  If I really wanted to give my best effort in the lab in those four months, I couldn’t be distracted by looking for jobs elsewhere.  I had to focus.

In June, immediately following my evaluation, I was a wreck: angry, anxious, scared.  I don’t think I’ve ever received such negative feedback on my work.  It was demoralizing and upsetting, even if I didn’t agree with all the specifics of the evaluation.  I’ve always been a hard worker and a high achiever, but now I was facing a boss who was telling me otherwise.  And the thing is, he wasn’t totally wrong.  I had been struggling in my research.  I had been unlucky.  And I was frustrated with that.  But never before had an advisor come down so hard on me.  It rattled me.

I took my time, processing the aftershocks of the bad news.  Perhaps it sounds like I was overreacting, but consider this: in my life, my work is huge.  It’s my livelihood, of course, but it’s also part of my identity and my pride.  I moved 1100 miles for this job, giving up all my local friends and comforts as well as easy travel back to Michigan to see my family.  I made huge sacrifices for my current job because I thought it was worth it.  And now here it was, crumbling beneath my feet, despite my best efforts to make it work.

But here is the amazing thing: after giving myself time to feel however I happened to feel, I have arrived at a better place.  Research-wise, I feel optimistic about the future.  More importantly, I feel at peace about whatever happens.  I may still lose my job (or as I like to say, because it sounds better, “my contract may not be renewed”), but I know that I gave it my best effort.  That’s really all I can do.  The only way for me to guarantee that my experiments will yield a particular result is for me to fake the data, which is not a strategy I endorse.  For me, recognizing that all I can do is perform the experiments patiently and thoughtfully was a huge step toward making peace with my situation.

Is my situation still anxiety-provoking?  Yes, absolutely.  Not knowing whether I will have a monthly income in November does not make me happy.  But for now, I’ve chosen to focus on what I do have, which is a few more months in this job.  After that, we will see what happens. 

Either way, everything is going to be okay.  That much I know. 

Sticky Feets

Here’s a photo to illustrate my research interests.  Any guesses?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Lucky Me

This is Part Three and the final installment of my rambling little essay on love.  You can find Part One here and Part Two over here.

I fully intend to finish this essay series before the end of August because I need to make sure you still have access to good summer produce!  Today we’re talking melons, but before that, let’s talk about friends and the food they cook for us.

I’ve waxed poetically about Matt’s cooking before, but his recipes remain elusive.  He cooks intuitively and delightfully, which makes watching him cook quite the pleasure.  We don’t really cook together any more, which would make me sad if I hadn’t decided to just accept my role as audience member when he’s in the kitchen.  I think part of loving someone, especially for a long time, is accepting them: their temperament, rhythms, and habits.  Matt and I do a pretty good job at this with each other.  Part of how Matt operates is that when he cooks, it’s mostly a solo operation.  It’s certainly possible that my small kitchen has something to do with this; it might not be as easy for him to handle the small space.  My friend Amutha, who is a scientist like me, pointed out that when you work in labs as we do, you get used to sharing small spaces with people.  You perfect the art of dancing around other people.  It’s fitting that Amutha and I have an easy time sharing my kitchen, but Matt and I tend to segregate: he takes over the kitchen while I eat snacks at the kitchen table and occasionally play sous-chef (“Can you rinse these tomatoes?”).

The last time we had dinner together, I very slyly convinced both Matt and Amutha to cook dinner for us: a tag-team effort between two of my favorite cooks.  They agreed easily; it probably helped matters that the two of them get along quite cheerfully, and we like to keep the red wine flowing in the evening.  The menu was Spain-meets-India: Matt made a refreshing gazpacho packed with produce from that morning’s visit to the farmers’ market.  Amutha made a channa paneer, if I may be so bold as to call it that: a heavily spiced dish of chickpeas and fried cheese, made magical with Amutha’s spice kit.  Matt and I both knew we’d be eating well that night when we heard Amutha was bringing her spice kit over to my place.  Oh yes.  And finally, as a palate cleanser, Matt assembled plates of melon and prosciutto for the meat-eaters; for me, he swapped out the prosciutto and instead dressed the melon slices with fresh lime juice and chopped mint.

As he chopped vegetables for the gazpacho, Matt nudged me to get out my camera and document his gazpacho-making.  And it was quite lovely, too, all the layers of summer vegetables, piled on top of one another in a rainbow of garden beauty.  Knowing that Amutha would be making a spicy Indian dish, Matt borrowed a note from the subcontinent’s raitas and went heavy on the cucumber so the gazpacho would complement the richness of Amutha’s dish.


But the gazpacho would not have been gazpacho without a judicious handful of raw garlic and a generous pour of olive oil to give it body.  We’re not talking vegetable smoothie here; we’re talking gazpacho

In Goes the Good Stuff

The red wine must have started working by the time Amutha arrived, as I have no photographic evidence of her efforts at the stove.  But I know this much: nobody cooks Indian food more deliciously than an Indian.  I love watching Amutha cook, the way her hands move so gracefully through chopping, seasoning, and cooking her food.  She has her own little kitchen dance, swaying from chopping board to frying pan to spice kit.  And her food tastes like nothing I’ve eaten before.  I mean, it tastes like Indian food, but it’s better than anything I’d had in an Indian restaurant.  To say that I like it would be an understatement.  I really, really, really like it.

When Amutha finished her channa paneer, the three of us sat down to dinner and had one of the loveliest evenings in recent memory.  Matt and Amutha have so many little habits and preferences in common that I say they are like two peas in a pod.  I certainly wouldn’t have guessed that Matt would find his counterpart in an Indian woman, but it’s true and hilarious.  They both prefer red wine over white, evenings to mornings, hot weather to cold, and both have a way of making everything they do look easy.  They also have a shared affinity for people who are a little more outwardly emotional, people who don’t have the cool-as-a-cucumber act down pat.  I find this last similarity fascinating, perhaps because it speaks more deeply to a similarity in temperament which shapes their attraction to other people.

And lucky me, they put up with my shenanigans.  I am hardly cool as a cucumber most of the time, but sometimes I’m mellow as a melon.  Since that evening, I’ve been preparing cantaloupe the way Matt did for me: with mint and fresh lime juice.  I’ve also started adding a pinch of salt, a move inspired by the prosciutto, whose saltiness plays so well against cantaloupe’s sweetness.  It’s a deeply refreshing recipe (hardly a recipe at all, really), and I thought you might enjoy it as much as I have.

Melon Dish

Matt’s Melon with Lime and Mint

Serves 3-4 as a side dish

1 perfectly ripe cantaloupe melon

A lime

Kosher salt to taste

Fresh mint to taste

1)  Chop the melon into bite-sized chunks and place in a large bowl.  Chop the lime in half and squeeze some juice over the melon.  Sprinkle some salt over the melon.

2)  Wash, dry, and chop the mint.  Sprinkle some chopped mint over the melon, then toss everything together.  Serve immediately or tuck in the fridge to save for later.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Weekend To-Do List

Garden Building

* Update blogroll. I’ve been on the fence for years about my blogroll.  It’s not exactly a reflection of the blogs I like to read, and I’d like to make some adjustments to it.  To be really honest, I’m going to remove some of the really popular blogs which don’t need any promotion from me (like the healthy living blogs) to make room for lesser-known but very lovely blogs.  Also, if you have a blog and you think I’d enjoy reading it, tell me about it in the comments!  I’d love to find more blogs written by people who are neither professional bloggers nor writers—in other words, people like me, who have a day job that has nothing to do with food or blogging.

* Update recipe index.  The index is so out of date that it frightens me.  It’s going to take me a while to catch up on all those recipe posts!

* Plan dinner menu for Saturday’s dinner with upstairs neighbor.  I’m thinking chili and cornbread.

* Pick out a tart pan to add to my Amazon wishlist.  My sister has been pressuring me lately to add more items to my wishlist, though I’d like to point out now that mesquite flour has been languishing on my list for nine months now.  I added a few Iron & Wine albums to my list because I can think of nothing better than an evening in the kitchen with Iron & Wine keeping me company, but this post over at rachel eats reminded me: this tart needs a tart pan!

* Make more basil oil.  I’m not sure what I’m going to do with it, but it’s a delicious decision to make!

* Read Dreaming in Hindi while relaxing on the couch.  I’ve been reading this book for a while now.  It was a little slow in the middle, but I think we’re picking up speed toward the end and I’m feeling eager to finish it.

Happy weekend, friends!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Let’s Talk About Peppers Today

With apologies to my friend Ammie, let’s talk about peppers today.  Ammie hates peppers, and I feel like I’m leaving her out.  Maybe next week we should talk about pie?  Ammie loves pie.

On the subject of bell peppers, Nigel Slater writes,

Without heat—from a grill, an oven, a cast-iron pan blackened with age—there is little point to the pepper.  Raw, green, and unripe, its waxy, plastic skin and lack of obvious juice offer little but crisp nothingness.  Refreshing, yes, but somehow an imposter in a green salad; an annoying intruder in a Bloody Mary; an unimaginative addition to a rice dish.  Wherever it appears, the raw green pepper seems uncomfortable.”  (from Tender)

Hmm.  It’s an interesting take on bell peppers, but I think I’ll beg to disagree.  I think a side of crunchy bell pepper slices can be rather nice next to a gooey, cheesy main course, such as a grilled cheese sandwich, a creamy bowl of soup, or an indulgent pasta.  Their “crisp nothingness” can be a lovely palate cleanser, a little vegetal mouth freshener between bites of something rich.  And perhaps I’m just fond of raw vegetables because they’re so easy: a little knifework and they are ready to eat.

But Nigel does have a point about the alchemy of bell peppers and heat.  When the two come together, something wonderful happens: crispy becomes silky, and something both brighter and deeper emerges out of the bell pepper.  The flavor is pulled in two different directions, which I think is why roasted red bell peppers are so beloved by foodies.  I’m actually not the biggest fan of them myself, but I was intrigued by a recipe in Tender in which Nigel calls for baking red bell peppers with tiny tomatoes, with both vegetables lightly dressed in salt, pepper, and olive oil.  After a blast the oven, the roasted vegetables are dressed with basil oil, which is so simple and so sublime that I demand you make it before the end of summer: fresh basil and olive oil, buzzed to a cheerful green puree in the food processor.  This stuff is amazing…AMAZING!  Nigel’s recipe will make more basil oil that you probably want or need to dress your peppers, and I’ve been using the remaining oil in all sorts of delicious things: dribbled on fresh mozzarella(!), mixed into fat pearls of Israeli couscous, as a dip for crusty bread.

As you can tell, I’m rather fond of the basil oil.  The peppers were good too.  Ammie, it turns out there is something in this post for you after all!

Baked Peppers

Nigel Slater’s Roasted Red Peppers and Tomatoes with Basil Oil

From Tender by Nigel Slater

Serve 4, with appropriate accompaniments, such as a nice cheese offering and some good bread

Nonstick spray

4 large red bell peppers

16 tiny tomatoes, such as grape or cherry tomatoes

Olive oil for drizzling

Salt and pepper

For the basil oil:

1/3 cup olive oil

Fresh basil to taste (I used one of those little 2/3-ounce packages from the grocery store and liked the looseness of the resulting basil oil, but you could certainly use more basil if you like)

1)  Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.  Spray a large roasting sheet with nonstick spray.  Slice the peppers in half lengthwise and remove the seeds and white membranes.  I sliced off the stems too.  Lay the peppers, cut-side up, on the roasting pan.

2)  Halve the tomatoes, then divide them among the peppers, placing them inside.  Sprinkle some salt and pepper over everything, then drizzle a little olive oil over each pepper half.

3)  Roast the peppers for about 45-50 minutes, until the peppers have softened and the tomatoes are collapsing.

4)  Make the basil oil: place the olive oil and fresh basil in a food processor, then buzz to make a puree.

5)  Serve the peppers with the basil oil, either drizzling some oil over each serving or letting each person add basil oil to taste.  Save the leftover oil and use it anywhere and everywhere.  Or just call me up and I’ll come over with a loaf of bread to take care of that leftover basil oil.

Peppers on Plate

Friday, August 12, 2011

Friday, with Up, Down, and a Little Visual Nostalgia

A year ago…

Working Apparently

On the Bus

Summertime Self-Photo

Blurry Lily

…working at home, riding the bus, taking self-photos, enjoying the water lilies.

Lately I’ve been interested in looking back through my photos from last year’s summer, particularly the ones that I never shared on Flickr.  I don’t spend a lot of time on this blog looking into the past; I tend to be a very forward-looking person in general.  It takes some effort for me to reel myself in from events that haven’t happened yet, and my constant anticipation of things to come is a major source of my anxiety.  So it’s refreshing to look back for a change, to see what caught my eye and what I liked when I was a year younger.

It’s funny that to my eyes now, last summer seemed fun and lighthearted, at least when I see it as a collage of photos.  When I think back to what was happening on the ground here, last August was the first indication that this job I’d accepted was not turning out the way I had hoped.  August 2010 was unpleasant because it started to shake the foundation upon which I was building my future.  Those rumblings have continued, but a year later, I feel much more at peace with not knowing where and how I will be employed.  Right now, there is a certain comfort in not worrying about it, not yet at least.

For now, I remain focused on my immediate experiments and the day-to-day chores.  I’m actually feeling really bogged down with daily responsibilities right now, to the point where I wish I could have taken today off from work to deal with my empty refrigerator and the dirty dishes in the sink.  Is that a lame set of reasons to take a day off?  I’m also feeling generally tired and a little worn out today.  I could have used a day to relax and catch up on my non-work life.

But I do what I have to do, and what I have to do these days is work.  I have to keep my eyes on the prize, which, in theory, is another paper.  When I think about my work like that, I do feel a little better about days like today.  And the fact that today is Friday makes me feel like some rest is not too far away.

I’m a little grumpy today.  Perhaps you could tell?  I’m sorry about that.  Let’s lighten things up a bit with another Up/Down list.  I’ll try to make sure the Up side is long enough to cheer us both up.

On the Up side of things, we have:

* Friday Night Lights.  I’m watching season 1 of this high school football drama.  It was a little depressing and slow at first, but the storylines are picking up speed now and I’m enjoying it very much.  Plus, Matt Saracen reminds me of my high school boyfriend, which is kind of adorable.

* Rocking out with Tom Petty while working at my microscope.  I spend a lot of time in front of a microscope these days.  When I was writing my PhD thesis, I had a playlist called Thesis Rock, and Tom Petty was an important part of that list.  He’s good for lab days.

* Pulling together today’s lunch out of random bits and bobs in the refrigerator.  I had no leftovers to use for lunch, except for a bit of rice and a tiny bit of chickpea salad.  It was depressing.  But then I dug through the produce drawer and found half a cucumber and a third of a tomato.  Combined with the chickpea salad and some jack cheese, sprinkled with some Herbemare, and tucked in a spicy flour wrap, my vegetables made for a tasty little main course for one.  I’m pretty pleased with my fridge raid!  That being said, I need to cook tomorrow!

* Postdoc happy hour tonight!  Since I’m eating dinner at happy hour as well, let’s hope there is something reasonably tasty and nutritious for vegetarians on the menu.

* Peanut butter chocolate chip cookies.  I need one right now, which means I must bake more of them ASAP.

On the Down side of things, we have:

* A job that doesn’t offer as much flexibility as I would like.  Sometimes I just need a day off, but it’s hard to make that happen because of the patterns within my work schedule.

* Being a tired, grumpy postdoc.  Blarg.

* Needing a vacation!  And then having to wait another month for that vacation.

* I was pretty bummed to learn a while ago about Borders going bankrupt.  The cookbook section of the Evanston Borders was a very important place for me during graduate school.  This piece, published in The Stranger, makes me even more sad for bookstores and book lovers.  But it’s insightful, well-written, and worth a read, especially if at one time, you loved Borders like I did.

* * *

Happy weekend, my dears!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Even Without a Gay Husband

Some of us are, shall we say, visually challenged.  Not only are my eyes something like 20/200 (which is terrible, terrible vision!  I can’t even read the words I’m typing!), but my interior decorating skills are so poor that Matt has said he feels like he is staying in an asylum when he visits me.  The white walls, the beige carpet, the lack of art—it’s just too much for him.  He likes bold, daring interior spaces.  My apartment is a little too calming for him.

But you know, I’m a high-strung person, and I find the white walls soothing.  I wouldn’t mind having more art, or even some color on the walls, but with my transient postdoc lifestyle, it’s hard to justify the investment of time and energy in this space that I’m renting.  I felt the same way when I was a graduate student, knowing that I was very likely to move to another city within a few years.  Decorating felt a little pointless—a waste of time and money, especially for impecunious graduate students who are short on both!

Last weekend, I was sitting at my kitchen table, eating lunch, messily, as usual, when I spilled my soup on the tablecloth.  It was a mess that required a change of clothing for the table.  Normally, I’d reach for another tablecloth because I always use tablecloths, just like my mom.  But that day, I wasn’t in the mood.  I wanted something different.  I’ve always liked the look of table runners on other people’s tables.  (These are the sorts of things I think about when I read food blogs: table runners.)  I have a circular table, and I didn’t think table runners worked with round tables.  The geometry doesn’t seem quite right, like the linear shape of a table runner against the curviness of a round table do not match.  Despite all this, I decided to experiment, and I came up with this: 

Makeshift Table Runner

and this:

Table Runner From Above

I overlapped three of my square cloth napkins to create a makeshift table runner, and I really like how it turned out!  The bright colors look so cheerful against the polished wood.  The effect seems very summery to me.

Not bad for a visually challenged postdoc, eh?  Maybe I don’t need a gay husband after all.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

On Love and Cookie Dough Truffles

I’ve been known to bake in August, much to my mother’s horror.  August, in Texas, is what I like to call “the indoor season,” for obvious reasons.  I don’t spend the entire month indoors; I still get outside for bike rides and the occasional and quite literal run to Starbucks for coffee beans, but in summertime Texas, the outdoors don’t entice me like they do the rest of the year.  So I spend my time nesting and cooking, waiting out the heat until the cooler days of fall saunter into my life.

I realize that it’s kind of stupid to have the oven and the air-conditioner running at the same time.  I feel dollar bills slipping through my fingers, money seeping out of my apartment on a breeze of baked granola and artificially cooled air.  To my mind, the best strategy is to not think about these things too much because summer is an awfully long season where I live, and it would be a shame to deny myself treats like Roasted Tomato Soup or Crunchy Brown Sugar Granola.  I do tend to avoid turning on the oven at every meal, and I eat a lot of leftovers, so I’m not a complete spendthrift about my energy consumption.  But the smart Texas cook turns to a different set of appliances to survive the summer: a food processor and the freezer.

Making Raw Cookie Dough Balls

I mentioned long, long ago that I would tell you the story of my little food processor.  Back in the Stone Ages, I dated K, who lived in a lovely condo but had no real drinking glasses.  All of his water cups were those giant plastic ones, which was so strange to me because he seemed like a grown-up, but here he was with frat boy kitchen supplies.  He needed grown-up glassware, so for Christmas, I bought him a set of drinking glasses.  They were very heavy, and I lugged them from the store to the L to my apartment, where they sat, gift-wrapped, until K broke up with me in March.  I was deeply disappointed about being dumped, but I was pissed—PISSED!—about those damn drinking glasses, which I would now have to lug back to the store to return.

I was so angry about the stupid glasses that I was filled with superhuman strength as I hauled them back to downtown Chicago.  I stepped up to the return counter, and the clerk asked, “Is there a reason for this return?”  I answered, “They were a gift for someone, but I’m not giving them to him now.”  The clerk, bless his heart, said, “He must have been a jerk,” as he ran my return through the system.  He handed me my receipt, and I realized that the best way to make myself feel better about having been dumped would be to buy myself a present with K’s returned gift!  I’d been thinking about getting a food processor for a while; I had a new cookbook that called for a food processor.  So I bought myself a little Cuisinart Mini-Prep Plus.  The Cuisinart and I have now been together for far longer than K and I were together, and I daresay that we’ve been happier together as well.  In June, as I watched Matt making gazpacho using the Cuisinart, I thought about the ways in which our old lives intersect with our current lives.  Not only did K help bring me and the Cuisinart together with his returned gift, he helped bring me and Matt together because it was through dating K that I realized how desperately I needed to be with someone who could listen, empathize, and love in ways that didn’t come naturally to K.  To this day, I think that dumping me is the nicest thing he ever did for me.  Life is funny that way.

The Cuisinart and I have shared many moments together in the kitchen, making pesto and chickpea patties and now, cookie dough truffles.  I first found a recipe for these unbaked dough balls on Oh She Glows; since then, I’ve tinkered with the recipe to come up with something I really love.  Since the end of my Specific Carbohydrate Diet experiment, I’ve had bags of almond flour moping around my freezer, unused.  Swapping almond flour for the cashews in the original recipe seemed like a great opportunity to use up the almond flour before it went bad.

In my first batch of truffles, the only swap I made was almond flour for cashews.  Since then, I’ve dropped the oatmeal because I felt it made the dough gritty, subbing in more almond flour; lowered the salt; mixed up the sweeteners; and experimented with different chocolates.  But every version has been delicious: the dough, though (usually) vegan and relatively nutritious, tastes decadently rich and the texture is very similar to a traditional chocolate chip cookie dough.  It’s really kind of remarkable and a nice trick to have up your sleeve if you are into alternative cooking, such as making vegan or gluten-free treats.  I’ve probably made these truffles half a dozen times this summer, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I make them just as often in this final month or so of summer.  They’re too easy to make! 

Below is my favorite iteration of this sweet, along with a few notes to help you play with the recipe to your heart’s content.

Cookie Dough Truffles

Cookie Dough Truffles

Adapted from this recipe on Oh She Glows

Makes about 12-14 truffles

A few notes, just for fun:

* I’ve made versions of this recipe with honey and maple syrup; they seem pretty interchangeable to me.

* You could use a pinch or two more of the salt if you like, but I think I’m happiest with 1/4 tsp.

* I think this could easily be made gluten-free and grain-free by substituting a different flour for the pastry flour.  Perhaps coconut flour?  Or you could try going up to 1 cup almond flour and adding a bit of flax egg.  If I went that route, I’d start with 1/2 tbsp. ground flax mixed with 1 1/2 tbsp. water.

* My other favorite version of this recipe uses half of a Chocolove bar of Orange Peel in Dark Chocolate.  The orange peel is so delicious and adds this wonderful crunch to the truffles.  They are addictively good!  Consider yourself warned.  

3/4 cup almond flour

1/4 cup whole-wheat pastry flour

1/4 tsp. kosher salt

2 tbsp. granulated sugar

1 1/2 tbsp. honey

1/2 tbsp. water

1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

1/4 cup chocolate chips

1)  In a food processor, combine the almond flour, pastry flour, salt, and granulated sugar.  Buzz to combine.

2)  Add the honey, water, and vanilla.  Buzz to let the ingredients come together into a doughy consistency.

3)  Add the chocolate chips, and buzz to combine them into the dough.

4)  Scrape the dough into a small bowl.  Use your hands to shape the dough into bite-sized balls.  Tuck them into a container that you can seal tightly, and store them in the freezer.

Raw Cookie Dough Balls

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Right on the Money

Dear readers, I have good news!  The roasted tomato soup is a winner!  I’m actually writing a recipe post!  Hip hip hooray!

Roasted Tomato Soup

I confess that I was not as enthusiastic about this soup the night I made it.  The original recipe makes a chunky vegetable soup that you ladle over toasted garlic bread.  While that sounded good in theory, I opted out of the garlic bread part and found that the chunky soup was just a little too rustic.  Normally, I’m all about rustic cooking, but there were too many tomato skins and seeds for me to be thrilled about this soup.  I was, in fact, so distracted by the texture that I barely considered the flavor.  I’m sure it didn’t taste bad, but it needed help.

The last roasted tomato soup I made was a Roasted Tomato and Black Bean Soup.  That soup blew me away with its complex flavor.  It was rich and spicy, robust and so perfectly balanced that I crave it now, just thinking about it.  I was hoping for a similar experience with the Italian-style roasted tomato soup on Sunday night, but instead I slunk away from the table, disappointed and pouting.

Thinking back to the black bean soup, I decided to experiment by throwing the roasted tomato soup leftovers into the blender and buzzing it to smoothness.  I also felt hopeful that a few days of resting in the fridge might help the flavors to coalesce.  After all, there was no reason why a soup with roasted onions and tomatoes, half a cup of roasted garlic, and a generous handful of fresh basil should be anything less than terrific.  (Yes, you read that correctly: HALF A CUP of roasted garlic.  It was insane.  It was incredible.  You must try it.)  While I was prepared for my predictions to be wrong, as they often are, for once, I was right on the money.  After a patient zhuzh in the blender, the soup was transformed.  Gone were the distracting textural issues; in their place was a deep, wonderful soup, like the best tomato sauce you’ve ever had but even better.  Even knowing what was in the soup, I found it hard to tease apart the flavors—they’d melded into something singularly delicious, something perfect for slurping from the spoon and dipping my bread into.  It was ambrosial, this roasted but now chilled and blended soup.  I highly recommend it, and the bread too, if you can find it.  I bought a loaf of Blue Baker’s Italian Loaf, and it was wonderful.  But really, I think any good sourdough or savory artisan bread would be nice with the soup.

Tuesday Night Dinner

Roasted Tomato Soup

Adapted from EatingWell

Serves 4

2 medium or large onions, sliced

2 tbsp. vegetable or olive oil

1/4 tsp. salt, plus more to taste

1/4 tsp. black pepper, plus more to taste

20 ounces tiny tomatoes (I used grape tomatoes)

1/2 cup garlic, peeled and coarsely chopped (yes, half a cup!)

3 cups vegetable stock

Generous handful of fresh basil

1)  Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.

2)  In a 9x13-inch pan, toss together the onions, oil, salt, and pepper.  Roast for 18-20 minutes, until the onions start to brown.

3)  Stir the tomatoes and garlic into the onion mixture.  Roast for another 18-20 minutes, until the tomatoes start to collapse and the onions have browned some more.

4)  Scrape the roasted vegetables into a soup pot.  Add the vegetable stock, bring everything to a simmer, and turn off the heat.  Let the soup rest for 10 minutes or longer.

5)  Add the basil to the soup pot.  In a blender, working in batches, puree the soup to smoothness.  Taste and add more salt or pepper if needed.

6)  Serve, either warm or at room temperature.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

It’s Random, I Know

Branches into Sky


More Branches and Sky


Stone Bench


Today I share with you three random photos from May, June, and July, in that order, from this year.  Apparently I like taking pictures of tree branches.

There is a shortage of good, functional pens around the lab, so whenever I find an abandoned pen, I snatch it up and make it mine.

I have no interior decorating skills.  None.  And I wish I had a husband with a gay man’s interior design skills!

I wonder if I can poach the nectarines that are refusing to ripen into something that does not feel like tennis balls.

I like seeing spiders around my apartment because I assume they are busy eating the insects in my apartment!

I often feel guilty about not being able to read the work of much-praised writers.  But then I think, How much work should my pleasure reading be?

The roasted tomato soup from Sunday night was not as good as I hoped it would be.  But tonight, I’m going to find out if a few days of chilling in the fridge have brought out the best in my soup.  We all need to chill sometimes, right?  Why should it be any different for food?  I’ll report back with the results and a recipe.

I’m sure this one is obvious, but I’m having trouble writing recipe posts.  Perhaps it’s a case of the summertime lazies?