Monday, April 27, 2009

Tonight we'll be drinking champagne

I witnessed the power of endorphins this afternoon, when I received some happy news today right before I went exercising. I've been using one of those machines that tracks speed, distance, heart rate, and the amount of milk left in your fridge, so I know that I did the same workout as usual. But because I was so excited, I just zipped through the workout without any effort at all. I'd like to arrange for something wonderful to happen every time I have to go sweat at the gym because it's the first time exercising has not been miserable for me.

(Oh, and the happy event was that I had won a little award (which I had previously known about) and it came with a bit of money (which came as a surprise.))

Friday, April 24, 2009

And I'm drinking iced tea, the offcial drink of summer

It is bee-oo-ti-ful today and I'm lucky to be enjoying the sunshine from my home (which has windows) instead of my office (which does not). I can here the birds chirping and a lawn mower droning. And aren't those the sounds of summer?

I have a fun weekend planned. Tonight we're going to a string quartet concert, tomorrow there's a cookout and a play to see, and on Sunday we're going to the beach. The weather is supposed to stay lovely and it might be 85 degrees, so I'm hitting the beach, even if it is only April.

It's hard to believe they had snow in Ohio two weeks ago.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Should I make it or buy it?

I make a lot of things from scratch. There are some items that we just never buy at the store anymore: bread, cat food, cookies, paneer, salad dressing, and canned beans among them. Some food I make because it's cheaper - good bread is expensive, and the good bakeries are on the other side of the city. Some food I make because it's better - the cat food my cat eats is made from real meat. Some things I know I'll keep preparing even when I have more money. For example, preparing dried beans is orders of magnitude cheaper than canned beans, and now that I have a freezer, I can freeze a bunch in can-sized portions for later.

But I have wondered whether I'd keep doing all of this if I start earning a little more. The cat food will go, for sure. I'm looking forward to the day when I can pay a small fortune for organic, meat-based cat food and give up the smell of well-boiled meat (which is a rare and unwelcome scent in our vegetarian kitchen). And the olive curing was a one-time event: even though it was much cheaper, we got tired of eating the same kind of olives all year.

I just read a good article on Slate that compared the cost and results of five things you can make or buy. I'm happy to see that the author agrees with my assessment that making yogurt is worth it. In the end, I think the answer to the question of what to make or buy is personal. You have to enjoy spending that time in the kitchen and you have to decide if you care that much about the particular food you're slaving over. But it is nice to know that I'm not blowing the budget by cooking at home. And I'll be trying bagels soon - fifteen cents versus a dollar is just too good to pass up.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Bacteria are my friends

Inspired by the New York Times food section this week, I made yogurt. I was surprised at how easy it was. A few months ago, I tried to make mozzarella cheese and I failed so miserably that it never made it onto the blog. But yogurt is apparently difficult to mess up.

I started with a half gallon of whole milk*. (You can use lower-fat milk, too, but then you have to add powered milk and I thought the simplest recipe would be the one most likely to succeed.) I used my candy thermometer to make sure I didn't heat it above 190F.
After it cooled to the correct temperature, I stirred in four tablespoons of store-bought yogurt. The last step is keeping it at the right temperature while the bacteria do their work for four to ten hours. I had intended to put the yogurt in my oven with a candle, but I needed to bake other things. So I just wrapped the pot in several bath towels. After four hours I had yogurt soup, so I stuck a hot water bottle next to the pan and left it swaddled overnight. This morning I had yogurt.
(I tipped the pan so you'd really believe that it's a solid mass. I meant to take a picture of the finished product, which I topped with maple syrup and cinnamon, but it was so good I forgot until the bowl was nearly empty.
The homemade yogurt was less tangy than the store-bought stuff, but it was smoother and creamier. I'll be making it again, probably regularly.

*Note: The milk can be pasteurized, but not ultra-pasteurized. I learned this the hard way.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Bits and bobs, once again

In the blink of an eye, my horizons have expanded. The catalyst for this change? My new laptop battery. I can now SIT ON THE COUCH and check my email. Or go the the coffee shop (which has no outlets) and work on a paper. Or, as the picture last weekend shows, sit outside and write. (Although the truth is that I used to do that before, using a very long extension cord.) This feels like a little gift to me as my year of heavy-duty writing begins. (And thanks go to my advisor who bankrolled this wonderous piece of technology.)
This semester I am enrolled in my very last required class. I am heady with the thought that from now on I will only need to learn things when I want to. (Which will be often, presumably, because that's what academia is all about, but now no one can make me do it.) The course I'm taking is on the philosophy of quantum mechanics. I easily sped through the first half of the semester because it was mainly about quantum mechanics. I can tell we've now hit the philosophy part, because I'm fairly lost. It's quite interesting to be immersed in a different academic culture - they structure papers differently, they argue in different ways, and they focus on ideas and perspectives that physicists just don't consider, even though it's supposedly our field. And I enjoy that part, but the required paper is looming and I'm nervous. I have to write a philosophy paper, not a physics paper, and I just don't speak the language. Four months is just not enough time to learn a new language, even if the two languages both use English words.
A good friend has recently discovered asparagus. He's mainly been eating it boiled, then tossed with a little olive oil and salt. One of my favorite ways is roasted with olive oil (about 15 minutes at 400 degrees), and then topped with vinaigrette. I also recommended boiled and topped with fresh-squeezed lemon juice and salt. Since cheap asparagus is everywhere right now, let me pose the question: how do you like to eat asparagus? Bonus points for preparation suggestions that are quick.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

I like to pretend it's lovely and warm out

For Easter, my husband made his very first pie, a deep-dish apple with a cheddar cheese crust. It looked absolutely gorgeous, and I hear it tasted pretty good too. I didn't get to sample it with everybody else because I had other plans today. So he packed the pie up in the luggage compartment on his motorcycle and sped off.
I had to skip the celebration because this weekend was my second writing retreat. This time, my friend M came down from Philadelphia to DC, and we spent the weekend eating great food and writing. She's finishing up her thesis and I'm just getting started, but either way it's loads more fun to work together. To add variety to our lives, we wrote at school, we wrote at the coffee shop, and this afternoon, we wrote outside (even though it was pretty cold out):

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Extreme libraries for extreme researchers

I've had to research at two high-security libraries lately: one, on my campus, has a lot of archival material to protect, and the other is the Library of Congress. In this day and age of downloading articles instantly, I find it can be an entertaining experience to trek to an actual library. My enjoyment of it is directly related to how much patience I've allotted for the endeavor. At both of these libraries I had stow all of my belongings, even my purse, in a locker and then sign in. The campus library allowed me to select my own book off the shelf, but I had to sign out the book before I was allowed to look at it at a table. I knew better than to even dream of asking to check it out.

The Library of Congress, though, is tops in all security measures. I had to go through a metal detector and have my bag X-rayed before I could enter the building. Then I had to apply for a photo ID library card than would allow me to enter the library. (An aside: there were signs all over the application desk admonishing people that cards were only for researchers, and were not souvenirs. That some people would consider these souvenirs demonstrates the insane level of government-wonkiness that DC attracts.) After finding the appropriate library, I filled out the slips requesting my journals and they were delivered to me within an hour. Upon leaving, I had to collect my purse and go through the exit, where my purse was again inspected even though it had to be checked before I was allowed into the library.

After all that, they didn't even have the journals I wanted.