Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Highlights from my Christmas holiday in Ohio

1. Waking up at 3am last Tuesday and standing in a cold, snowy field with my parents and husband to see the full eclipse of the moon. I believe that every single day we were in Ohio it was cloudy, but the skies happened to clear at that hour. I thought it was incredibly cool that my parents would wake from a dead sleep and look at the moon with me.

2. Decorating the table. My father and I designed this one together.

3. Discovering that my husband knows how to draw. We colored with my niece and nephew for an afternoon. We were there with paper and pencils and then he just produced recognizable scenes on the page. This is something I’ve never been able to do, so I’m rather in awe.

4. Reading. I love reading, and whenever I go on vacation I’m reminded that I want to do it more. I read to my niece and nephew, I read my own books, and now (thanks to Andrew) I’ve got a Kindle so I can read even more.

5. Cooking a four course English Christmas dinner: Welsh rabbit, standing rib roast roast with onion gravy, roast potatoes and vegetables, and a boiled pudding with custard sauce. I learned that Welsh rabbit is actually cheese sauce on toast and that boiled puddings (which are just cakes that are steamed rather than baked) are deliciously moist and just as easy to make as regular cakes.

6. Reveling in winter. I appreciate many aspects of Miami, but I really miss the changing seasons. I soaked in the winter feeling as much as possible, which meant taking a walk in the woods while the snow was falling and drinking Gluehwein.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Chicago: Days 3 and 4

Sorry about the long radio silence. Work has hit me hard, and it's not going to let up until I take my Christmas vacation. I thus present an abbreviated version of our last two days in 'my kind of town, Chicago'.

It turns out that Andrew didn't ever remember visiting a zoo during his childhood. His whole family loves animals, so I guess they were too busy visiting the animals at wildlife preserves, model farms, parks, and beaches to make it to a zoo. So we visited one of the last free zoos still around in America - Lincoln Park Zoo. It was a small-ish but excellent zoo. The unseasonably warm weather that we had enjoyed the previous days had disappeared (and since I had accidentally left my winter coat in storage) I waddled around wearing two shirts, two sweaters, and two jackets. I was not exactly an icon of style, but I mainly stayed warm.

That night we had dinner a restaurant which was exclusively vegetarian. When travelling, we're often lucky enough to find vegetarian restaurants that cater to the foodie crowd, or high-end restaurants that serve vegetarian prix fixe menus. It seems a bit cruel of fate to give me a decent job so that I can afford to go to restaurants like this but plunk me in a city like Miami that would never support such a restaurant. In any case, Green Zebra served a great meal. We had a panna cotta, which I've never had because I didn't know they could be made without gelatin. The waiter assured me that it was done with agar, so I may be trying that myself one of these days. We also had a lovely potato soup with smoked sunchokes and a pasta in brown butter. These dishes, of course, made me vow to buy a smoker and learn how to make brown butter sauce.

During our final day we squeezed in a trip to the Art Institute of Chicago. I love this art museum, and have visited many times. But this time we only had a few hours and Andrew had never seen anything there. So we availed ourselves of the "If you only have an hour, see these twelve paintings" insert in the guidebook. I felt like the epitome of a tourist, checking off the paintings: Edward Hopper's Nighthawks? Check. American Gothic? Check. Seurat's A Sunday on La Grande Jatte? Seen it, moving on. But sometimes it just turns out that way.

Then we were off to the airport and to our respective homes. And those were our four days in the town that Billy Sunday couldn't shut down.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Chicago: Day 2


The last little bit of my vacation disappeared when I ate the last kernel of the Garrett's popcorn on Friday. I had rationed it, to make the vacation last, but I guess it's time to admit it's over. Luckily, we've got Thanksgiving and Christmas vacations approaching.

On Day 2, we took a boat tour on the Chicago River, led by the Chicago Architectural Foundation. Andrew enjoyed it much more than I expected he would, as evidenced by the fifty plus photos we have of random skyscrapers. I learned lots of history, none of which I can remember right now, and I got thoroughly chilled, a sensation I can still remember distinctly.

Dinner was ethiopian (Thanks, Tim - Ras Dashen was terrific!) and I discovered that Ethiopian beer is orders of magnitude better than Ethiopian wine. They had several authentic beers, all of them a chocolate-y, port style, which goes perfectly with spicy veggie purees. We ended the evening with Billy Elliot, a musical based on the movie. It's set in northern England (county Durham) and their accents were spot-on (not that I could tell - I asked Andrew afterwards). It was a terrific show, but it reminded me once again of the perils of wearing eye makeup to the theater. Even happy shows have a tear-jerker song or two, and then I'm left looking like Tammy Faye Bakker.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Chicago: Day 1

I was lucky enough to have ended up in a hipster neighborhood (Wicker Park) filled with vintage shops. I didn't do this on purpose (a disclaimer I must make, as my husband may have thought that this was a carefully-laid plan to spend all our money). I spent most of the first day puttering around, ducking into shops. I emerged with a renewed resolution to wear more vintage clothes, and more hats.

After that, I headed downtown to meet Andrew for dinner, because he was still busy doing conference things during the day. On the way, I made sure to stop for one of the iconic tastes of Chicago- Garrett popcorn. In particular, the Chicago mix is my favorite - a blend of cheese and caramel popcorn. Trust me, it's better than it sounds.


I had some time to kill, so I spent an hour at the Bean (aka the Cloud Gate). Almost everyone who walks by it has the urge to walk right up to the sculpture and make faces or goof around, which makes for exceptional people watching.

Then, on our way to dinner, Andrew and I discovered a good reason to come back in a few weeks, to see some live theater:


Our dinner turned into more of an adventure than I expected. I had set my sights on Ethiopian food, because there is no Ethiopian in all of southern Florida. I had left my list of recommended restaurants back at my room, so we relied on the guidebook, which placed three different Ethiopian restaurants within a few blocks of each other. Unfortunately, the guidebook was seven years old, and not one of these three restaurants still existed. Despairing, we ended up at an Indian restaurant, the Standard India Restaurant. The food was uniformly great, but the best part was the host. He was extremely personable, wandering around and checking in on each table repeatedly. We learned that he was a law professor and a director at a director at a global company. His family runs the restaurant, and he's a helps out (in his spare time?).

Andrew and I have been eating Indian together since we met, and to me it's a romantic food because our favorite restaurant catered our wedding. I've been a bit melancholy because that restaurant (Udupi, for all you former UMders) has closed, and I felt like a little part of my life was gone. But I guess I can have hope that I'll still continue to have new Indian food experiences.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Sleeping in style

Chicago. I loved it. As a sort of belated trip journal, I'm going to post each of the remaining days this week.

****
When I was a kid, we never stayed in motels. If we didn't have a relative who lived in the location of interest, we used something called Mennonite Your Way. This was a sort of organization where you submitted your name to a directory, indicating that you were willing to host people who needed to stay in your area. In return, when you were planning to visit somewhere, you'd call or write a letter and ask if the host if they could offer shelter. I think there was generally a bed or fold-out couch for my parents, but usually we kids ended up on the floor. You weren't supposed to pay anything, although you could bring a small gift. As the name suggests, this was intended for Mennonites, and since my parents had both been raised Mennonite, that seemed to be good enough. Throughout my childhood we had all kinds of interesting people stay at our house, and I thought it was perfectly normal to have complete strangers (but only Mennonite strangers!) drop by your house.

This option is no longer available to me, so I now use something called Airbnb. This isn't quite free, but it's along the same principle. When I was planning my trip to Chicago, I looked up who hosts there. The options vary - sometimes there's just a place on the floor, sometimes a couch or bed, or even multiple bedrooms - and prices vary accordingly. I used this in New York and plan to use it again at Thanksgiving. I couldn't have asked for a better experience in Chicago - my host was a young electrical engineer, who says he can often cover a good portion of his rent doing this. He made us breakfast one day, and offered good tourist advice. And I paid $35 a night for a room with no set check-out time and a genial host. It's the hipster's Mennonite Your Way.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

My life has been a bit over-vegetabled lately. I've joined a vegetable buying club, where someone buys organic veggies in bulk, and distributes them each week. It's sort of like a CSA (community supported agriculture), but you can cancel at anytime and you're not limited to the produce of one farm, or even one region. The produce is much higher quality than what I can get at the grocery store, and they give you so much that I split the share with a colleague. This week, because I'm going away for four days, I've been trying to eat my week's veggies in just two days. It's turned into an experiment to test how much produce one can eat without upsetting the digestive system. Today I've managed to eat a pomegranate, a persimmon, collard greens, half a (small) watermelon, spinach, half an onion, two poblano peppers, and a half a pint of cherry tomatoes. Oof.

This hasn't hampered my Indian cooking too much, although I only managed one Indian dish this week: spinach pakoras. You mix fresh spinach into a batter and fry up patties. The most interesting part is that this recipe forced to buy chickpea flour (available at your local Indian grocery), which I would somehow like to start using more, because it's so much healthier than wheat flour.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Cooler weather

Today was cool, in the 60s (the mid teens, Centigrade). I'll admit that this is not exactly winter weather for most of the world, but I was able to wear a jacket. We also turned off the air-conditioner, a rare occurrence since moving to Miami in May.

My landlord had built a tiny fire in a makeshift fire bowl. It was lovely to sit by the fire with my wine and a book, and also reassuring. I've been wondering if I can survive in a place that doesn't have winter. Now I know that if I can have a few chilly days (and luckily, I'm easily chilled), I won't feel like I live in perpetual summer.

I'll also get the chance to experience some winter weather next week, when I spend a few days in Chicago. I haven't had Veteran's Day off since high school, but my university designates it an official holiday. So I'm making it a long weekend and flying up to Chicago, where Andrew will be attending a conference. Chicago is one of my favorite cities. I've visited many times, so there aren't lots of "must-sees" that I haven't seen. This frees me up to do other things. I'm going to take a river tour of the city run by the architectural society, and I'm going to do some vintage shopping. I also hope to find some Ethiopian food, one of the few cuisines that South Florida doesn't offer.

Speaking of cuisine, the latest attempts on Indian food had mixed results. Palak paneer (spinach and cheese) is definitely a keeper, because it's so easy. You puree the onions, garlic, and spices in the food processor, then fry it. Add the pureed spinach and cook, then add the paneer before serving. On the other hand, the pudding I made was odd and too heavy. I'm used to American puddings, in which milk is thickened with flour and maybe eggs. The Indian pudding was made by boiling down the milk until it was one-fourth the volume, with a handful of rice to thicken. I had to stand and stir the milk for a half an hour while it boiled down, and then at the end I had basically made evaporated milk. Next time I'll just buy a can of sweetened condensed milk and call it dessert. Or better yet, I'll make cake.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Trick or Treat!

We celebrated Halloween last night, at a costume party. Andrew worked on his costume all day. Can you tell what he is?


I was a godess, Athena to be exact. She's the goddess of war and wisdom. I couldn't find an owl to perch on my shoulder, so I'm a bit heavier on the war than on the wisdom part.




I hope you were all duly impressed by Andrew's costume, because the other guests were. He won the prize. Sadly, there is no place for the tree costume in our tiny home, so it's already been, erm, composted.





Monday, October 25, 2010

Upgrading

When I finished graduate school and got a post-doc position, my salary approximately doubled. The thought of this increase is one of the things that got me through the six or seven years of graduate school. We've tried to remain frugal, because while the our income increased we now have two households to support. But I have allowed myself a few indulgences. First off, I upgraded the quality of gin I drink, and I've started buying sparkling water (which I love, but how could I justify paying good money for water and air?).

I think I've added one more indulgence to the list. I've been a newspaper reader for decades. Even when I was a poverty-stricken chef-in-training in Albuquerque who couldn't afford a subscription, my uncle and aunt would save their papers for me. I'd pick them up each week and ration them out, reading one each day, exactly one week late, so that I could have a paper every day. Living in DC spoiled me, I know, because the Washington Post is a terrific paper. Even now, when Andrew comes to visit, instead of flowers he brings me a copy of the Post. The Miami Herald is, unfortunately, a pale imitation. I mean, it has two sports sections, almost no business news, and I've already mentioned the plastic surgery column. So I've been supplementing with a weekly New York times. The Sunday Times costs a whopping $6 an issue, which is more than I like to pay for a lunch. But it comes so jam-packed with readable material that I can work on it all week, and the only side effect is that it makes me want to move to New York.

And so I ask, if you had a bit of extra money to spend on one new, regular indulgence, what would it be?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Practice makes perfect

This is going to sound obvious, but sometimes the best way for me to improve my cooking is to just keep doing it. In graduate school, I decided that I'd like to make really good chocolate mousse, so I just kept making it, week after week, until it was consistently just right. (After all, even poorly executed chocolate mousse is no great hardship to eat.)

When I moved to Miami, I inadvertently improved my pasta making skills. I liked eating homemade pasta, no one (aka my husband) was around to ask for variety, so I just ate fresh pasta and marinara sauce every night. I've discovered that I can make a large batch at once and freeze individual portions, so it's not as much work as it seems. And since I've made the dough a dozen times, I know exactly what the texture should be, how long it needs to be kneaded in the mixer, and even how to simultaneously feed dough into pasta machine, turn the crank, and pull it out (without growing a third arm).


So I was thinking that I'd like to get better at Indian cooking. I love to eat Indian, but cooking a meal always seems like an all-day affair. Partly that's because when I like Indian buffets - I want the bread, and the raita, and a couple of curries, and some rice and dal. And then I'm too tired to eat what I've made. But it might also be that I'm just not sufficiently familiar with Indian cuisine, and that I could get faster with practice. So I've vowed to make two Indian dishes a week, which will conveniently make up my school lunches. (And I can keep eating pasta for dinner every night.)

This week's attempts were aloo gobi (potatoes and cauliflower) and eggplant cashew rice. They were both good, but the eggplant rice was better, because it had a range of textures. I always think of Indian food being quite heavy, but if you stay away from both paneer and cream-sauce dishes, as I did this week, it turns out that you don't get enough calories. I've been hungry every afternoon. I guess a little more ghee wouldn't go amiss.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Growing pains

My new academic home feels different than my old campus, and that's not just due to the palm trees and fountains here. It's also because Florida International University is, so to speak, a young whippersnapper.The university was founded in the 1970s, and it was about twenty years ago that it was classified as a Doctoral/Research University. (This is a classification that tells you about the primary focus of the university - whether it's teaching, a lot of research and what kinds of degrees it offers - associate's, bachelor's, or PhDs.) The physics department here only started offering doctoral degrees a few years ago.

Compared to other American universities, which may have been around a hundred or so years, thirty-something is pretty young. You can tell we're still growing because they're constructing a half a dozen buildings at once. We're always short classrooms, which means the classroom nearest to my office has classes most days from 8am to 8pm. Because 90% of the students commute, they can't study together in their dorm rooms, and there's not enough places to meet in the library and student union. So students meet outside in walkways, and sometimes in hallways, to work.

Parking is one of the most serious deficiencies. Because I have a faculty parking permit, I'm lucky enough to get a parking space as long as I arrive before 11am. Students that want a convenient spot try to arrive around 8am. If you arrive at 9am or 10, there's really only one solution, and it's a very civilized one. You join a queue. In each parking lot, at the exit door on each floor, a line of cars waits. When a student who's leaving emerges from the door, the first car follows that student to their parking space and takes their place. Then the whole queue advances one car length. It still means that you have to wait dozens of minutes, but now instead of cruising all over campus, you can conveniently read (or text) from the comfort of your car while you wait.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Fall

I know, in my head, that Miami has two seasons, rainy and dry. And I think I'm starting to understand, for real, that that means it's always going to be summer. Since I moved here in May the days have been humid and daily high is in the low 90's F (low 30s C). Now the temperatures have dropped to the mid-80s F (high 20s C), and I have been informed that this is fall.

Fall - real fall, when the air gets crisp and you can wear a jacket and kick leaves as you walk down the street - is my favorite season. I'm going to miss it quite a bit this year. I've managed to schedule some winter weather for myself, with a long weekend in Chicago in November and a Christmas week in Ohio. But there will be no leaves crunching beneath my feet nor any impetus to start cooking with pumpkins and apples.

The most unusual "fall" experience I've had in Miami? I had to walk through the Christmas display at Home Depot to get to the garden section where I was buying some seedlings for my herb garden.

Andrew thinks we should get a Christmas palm instead of a Christmas pine tree this year.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Mostly Miami

A continuing examination of the unique culture and customs of this Southern Florida city.

Miami time. When you're on Miami time, that means things don't start on time. This is one of the things about this Latin city that wounds my German soul. I was warned early on that I should show up to parties at least 30 minutes after the start time. This is not natural for me; right now I deal with it by getting ready to go, and the parking myself on the couch for 30 minutes to wait until I'm allowed to leave. This even applies to more planned events, in my experience. This week I went to my first concert at my new university which was, presumably, not the first concert ever stage there. The performers were excellent, and the hall was beautiful. But the organizers didn't seem quite so, well, organized. When I bought my ticket a half an hour before the concert started, they told me that they were running a little late with the soundcheck and that the house wasn't yet open. They opened the door ten minutes before the start, but they were still figuring out who should collect the tickets and where this should be done.

People kiss when arriving and leaving events. (Not at work, thank goodness.) This takes more coordination than one might expect, because I haven't quite figured out whether the on-the-cheek kind of kiss or the more in-the-air kind of kiss, and which people I'm supposed to kiss.

They eat late. I'm originally from the Midwest, where we eat the evening meal around 6pm. (What we call that evening meal is a whole other story.) When I lived in DC, it seemed like restaurants would get crowded around 7 -9pm. So, when I wanted to make a reservation at a nice restaurant for our anniversary, I reserved several weeks early, to get the 8pm time I wanted on a Friday night. I needn't have worried: when we arrived, the restaurant was mostly empty, and it wasn't until 10 pm, when we were leaving, that it was getting full.

****
I was going to spend the weekend thrifting and hanging out at the beach, but my plans changed quite suddenly today. At 1pm I figured out that the car was overheating, and Andrew helped me diagnose a malfunctioning radiator fan. At 2pm he bought a plane ticket, and he'll be arriving tonight for a two-day visit. This seems just a little absurd to me, but it's actually cheaper to fly him in than to take the car to the mechanic.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Naples

Last week I had a birthday, and as a gift to you all I arranged for a national holiday so that everyone could have the day off. You're welcome.

Andrew usually plans a day trip for my birthday. This year he had mixed success: both of the restaurants he had researched turned out to be closed and we had some car trouble. So the food was nothing extraordinary, but the serious clanking noise we heard turned out to be a piece of nonessential metal that had rusted off and gotten stuck in the wheel well. I was really glad that Andrew was around to take off the wheel and examine the situation. If it had happened on one of the weeks that he lives in Maryland, I would have had to use the ignore-it-and-hope-it-isn't-serious or the enrich-a-mechanic-being-paid-on-time-and-a-half approach. However, this year's birthday trip was quite a success when compared to last year, when we got stuck in traffic before getting on the Bay Bridge. We sat in traffic for a few hours, ate our picnic lunch in the car, and then turned around and went home. On top of that, I returned my gift from Andrew.

This year we drove to Naples, which is a town on the west coast of Florida and not (sadly) the Italian city known for pizza. I had heard that beaches on the west side of Florida were beautiful, and the sand did not disappoint. It was white, very soft, and the beaches were shallow and very long. Not that many people were around, and there were loads of shells for the beachcombers.

We saw a rainbow on our way home. It feels like Florida has an unusually large number of rainbows. I've seen at least a dozen since I moved here, but I can't figure out why there would be more here. Are the rainbows easier to spot because it's so flat here? Is it because the rainshowers are so isolated? Scientists, please help me figure this out.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

the new look

I gave myself a haircut last night.

This morning, when I style it, I thought it evoked a flapper bob.

Later, I realized I had turned myself into a Romulan.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Stormy weather

I don't want to tempt fate, but I've completed my hurricane preparations. That doesn't mean that I'll be happy if one hits, but I can't really think of more to do. The number one thing you need in a hurricane, I'm told? Cash. The ATM's won't work, of course, and neither will the credit card readers. So if you need water or gas, cash will be your friend.

Thus, I've stashed a bit of cash. (Go ahead, burglars, you'll never guess where I hid it.) I bought two collapsible water containers and if a storm threatens I'll fill them up. I've purchased emergency cat rations (otherwise known as dry cat food), since the frozen cat food could thaw and decay. I've squirreled away food for me too: I wanted stuff I wouldn't have to heat up and that would last as long as possible, so when the power goes out I'll be eating vegetarian soup and whole wheat matzoh (good until 2013!). The landlord says he'll take care of the windows, and if we have to evacuate but can't get up Interstate 95, the cat and I have reservations at a pet-friendly evacuation center.

I wonder what I've forgotten...

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Be my guest

I recently attended a pig roast in Ohio, hosted by my parents. Don't ask me why a vegetarian spends hundreds of dollars and hours of travel time to watch people eat pork; it can't be rationally explained. All I can say is that I enjoy seeing all of the guests, although this is tempered by watching my husband eat a meal composed entirely of pork (including the eyeball).

My parents moved into a new, larger home a few years ago, which has provided the space for two offices as well as two guest rooms. I have thus discovered that my mother has a knack for provisioning guest rooms. She makes sure that each room has a nightstand with a lamp and alarm clock, which provides a level of comfort above and beyond the overhead light. Towels are laid out and there's an empty dresser for your stuff. This year she also set out a few books that might make interesting bedtime reading and I loved that. I have an aunt in Georgia who always puts fresh flowers and snacks in her guest rooms. I appreciate all the thought these people making their guests comfortable, and I can't wait until I have a home big enough to provide the same courtesies.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Keys

I'd rate Key West an excellent weekend getaway. We spent last weekend there and I was pleasantly surprised at how much we enjoyed it, even though I don't fall into any of the targeted demographics: gay, party animal, or beach bum. I prefer to vacation in big cities for long vacations, but I can appreciate a beach town for a few days.

We left early Saturday morning. Although it seems like Miami is as far south as you can get on the mainland of the US, it still takes an hour or so to really get to the bottom. Then you join the queue of cars headed south, because there's just one road that connects the 40 or so islands that are car-accessible. This road happens to be U.S. Route 1, which is the easternmost north-south highway in the US. It ran through my old home of College Park, as well, so it's nice to see it again. Route 1 is mostly two lane, running across islands and long bridges, until it ends (or begins, depending on your point of view).

Once we arrived, we had lunch. I had done research before I left, as always behooves a vegetarian foodie, so we ate well. Sadly, the picture on the left was my plate when I was done with my meal. I hate wasting food, so that picture was taken with great sadness. I don't quite understand how European restaurants (yes, I'm talking to you, Amsterdam) manage to serve small servings at steep prices and American restaurants manage to serve heaping servings at cheap prices. Wait, I worked as a waitress long enough to know where the savings are coming from...

Next, we were off to a butterfly house. My favorite type of butterfly was the one you see in the upper lefthand corner: the black and white one. It fits with my aesthetic, although it seems a bit unfair to expect butterflies to be monochromatic.
Andrew's pick for animal of the day was probably these quail. They were running around on the floor inside the butterfly house. I honestly didn't know that the U.S. had ground-dwelling birds; I would have thought that the native predators would have prevented there survival.






I also added to my new collection of tropical fruit pictures - bananas! I didn't know that such a large, striking bloom was involved. We photographed this one in the garden at Ernest Hemingway's house.

Friday, August 06, 2010

More from exotic Miami

Today I'll continue my report on the less-familiar aspects of Miami. As soon as I moved here I thought that Miami felt quite different than the other (numerous) places I've lived in the U.S. It can take quite a bit of thought, though, to pin down exactly what feels different, but here's a start:

1. All the windows have decorative grilles over them. I live in what is called a "transitioning" neighborhood, which means we have well-appointed houses and fancy art galleries quite near to convenience stores that accept food stamps. So I did wonder if the grilles were for safety. They are, but from hurricanes rather than people. They're made so that you can slip wood in between the grille and the window during hurricanes, which looks like a lot less work than boarding up your windows.
2. The summer is "off-season." Sure, summer is still the hottest part of the year. But the growing season actually takes place from October-April, when it's not so hot. And since all the tourists visit in the winter, summer is the time to snag deals at restaurants and hotels.
3. Miami has a reputation for a strong focus on bodily beauty. This does appear to be true. I especially enjoy the weekly plastic surgery advice column in the paper.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Exploring Florida

A few weeks ago I decided I needed to start exploring Florida beyond its beaches. Since it is the height of summer, many of the tourist attractions, such as the Everglades, are out. I have heard horror stories of the heat, humidity, and mosquitoes in the Everglades this time of year and I have no desire to confirm them. Sad to say, there was a reason so many swamps in Florida were drained, and while I'm happy that swamps still exist, I'll be waiting until cooler weather to go visit them.
The first stop on our day trip was for the purpose of fortifying ourselves with frozen custard. The verdict: not bad, but not amazing. In the past I done all of my local food research using Chowhound, but the southern Florida section of said website is rather new and this limits my ability to locate really terrific food.
The primary goal of our trip was to visit a historic lighthouse a few hours north of Miami. In one of the gardens there I saw something I had never before seen: pineapples. I knew they grew low to the ground but somehow I never imagine that the immature versions would be such tiny, perfect versions of the full-size pineapple. Each of the fruits pictured here are about four inches long. They seem so exotic to me.
Here is the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse. It's not very tall, but since Florida is very flat we had a good view from the top. Our guide had lots of historical tidbits to feed us. The one that stuck with me, perhaps because it was so sad, was the fact that at one point in the nineteenth century, all the Native American tribes indigenous to the area were wiped out, either due to disease, war, or deportation. The tribes that are now in Florida originally came from Georgia and Alabama.
This weekend we're going to Key West, which I expect to offer less in the way of history and more in the way of fruity cocktails.

Monday, July 26, 2010

An even tinier house

Those of you who saw our old house may remember that it was cozy. 425 square feet of coziness, to be exact, and about 75 square feet weren't usable by anyone over four feet because the ceiling sloped. Well, I decided that we could live even more efficiently. Our new house has 350 square feet (32.5 square meters for my metric readers). The new apartment feels much smaller because we lost almost all of the (extensive) closet space that we used to have. In order to make this workable, we had to (1) purge and (2) hide stuff. We disposed of a lot of furniture before we moved to Miami, but we also ended up putting stuff in storage. Our stored belongings are things we really wanted to keep, mainly tools and camping gear, but not things that we needed for daily living. Andrew kept trying to convince me that we could just leave all the boxes in the living room and walk through the piles (maybe we could have built furniture using packed boxes?) but I'm a woman who needs lots of empty space. After a few months of arranging and decorating, I am ready to reveal the beta version of our Miami home.

The living room:
The kitchen, also known as the other side of the living room:
And let's take a closer look at that lamp. Why, it's covered in paper cocktail umbrellas! Just like this one. (I have a feeling that people are going to either love or hate this lamp.)

The bedroom has, as of yet, been untouched by the Wand of Style. Suggestions are appreciated.


Sunday, July 25, 2010

Portland: coffee, food carts, and conferences

I spent last week at a conference in Portland. I especially enjoyed seeing all of my work friends this time, perhaps because I haven't been socializing much since I moved to Miami. I also appreciate my job more after talking to other postdocs; I was reminded that some jobs can require more adjustments than others. I don't want to sound too Pollyannish (there's nothing more boring than a happy blogger), but I really like my work and the people I work with.

Portland has always been one of my favorite cities, and it did not disappoint. I made multiple trips to an outstanding coffeehouse. I didn't have time to stop at the chocolate shops that everyone was raving about, but I did have many lunches at the food carts that cluster at certain parking lots and parks. (This makes me officially hip, I believe.) Oh, and did I mention the beer? A microbrewery in the area, Deschutes, supplies a lot of the local restaurants, and one night we also had a beer flight at Deschutes where I had a beer that tasted exactly like lychees. (It was not a fruit beer. You'll have to trust me that it was great.)

While I enjoyed the beauties of Portland, however, the cat had to remain at home. When I'm away, a four-year-old neighbor takes care of Phi. Her parents have discouraged me from paying her, so I'm left to the only other compensation tool I know: food. This has been an interesting challenge, as I want the food to appeal to a small girl, yet be enjoyable for her parents (who do most of the work, I presume). So this time I went heavy on the pink and the sprinkles, but also took the time to make French buttercream and genoise. While I was at it, I made a smaller version for me, so everybody will eat well this week. (If anyone has more suggestions for baked goods that would wow a four-year-old, please send them my way.)

Saturday, July 03, 2010

As American as...

I was invited to an early Independence Day party. We were encouraged to bring dishes with a patriotic theme, and people went all out. There was a roast chicken, with a little gravestone that said "R.I.P. Senator Robert Byrd." There was a huge plate of red, white and blue sushi (the rice was died), arranged in the shape of the flag. Numerous flag-decorated cakes, cobblers, and pies made appearances. Oh, and we can't forget the Fox News Kool-aid. (Drink the Kool-aid!)

I wanted to make an apple pie, but I was concerned that there would be an overabundance of desserts. So I made a savory apple pie. I had to make up my own recipe, because I couldn't find any that had all the ingredients I wanted to use. The pie was well received (= I didn't have any leftovers to take home) so I'll be making it again. Here's my abbreviated recipe.

I made enough pie crust a double 9" pie. While the dough chilled, I slowly cooked two thinly sliced Vidalia onions. I wanted most of the water to cook out and for them to get dark and soft. I added a few pinches of salt and pepper and a teaspoon each of thyme and sage. Then I peeled and sliced three Granny Smith apples, tossed them with 2 tablespoons of flour, and a bit of sugar and thyme. Lastly, I sliced 8 oz of sharp cheddar. I layered first the onions and then the apples in the pie crust, then topped them with the cheddar and the second crust. A bit of egg wash, and 45 minutes later I got this:

Happy Independence Day!

Monday, June 28, 2010

In a galaxy far, far away

I’ve been neglecting this poor blog for a while. There are always excuses, of course, but the nice thing is that if you’re too busy to write stuff on the blog, it often means that you’re doing interesting things that you can eventually write about.

I’ve spent the past week in Seattle. This city is beautiful, and about as far (both geographically and culturally) as you can get from Miami. I’ve never flown from one corner of the US to the other, and I hope I won’t often have to do it. There came a point on the trip, when I had already flown five hours, and yet I still had two and a half hours left, when I thought, “How can I still be in the same country?” Wikipedia claims that they are, respectively, the northern-most and southern-most major cities in the Continental U.S., and that doesn’t include the fact that you also have to travel east across three time zones.

Seattle has presented a great contrast to Miami. Here in Seattle, someone thought that my sandals, which have a low heel, might prevent me from walking to lunch. After all, most everyone else is wearing clogs or Teva-style shoes. In Miami, my clothes are two understated: my heels are too low and my skirts are too long. I definitely don’t wear enough jewelry. Seattle also reminds me that Miami is really, really flat. It’s not just Mount Rainier, which rises majestically in the distance (at least, it does on the days when it’s not raining), it’s also that most roads wind around, up and down over the hills. They all seem happy about the warm weather here, because it recently topped 75 degrees, after nine months of cooler weather. I don’t think we go below 80F in Miami in June.

The more alternative attitudes shouldn’t catch me by surprise, and yet they do. I went to a street fair yesterday and bought some kettle corn. They explained that they had salted popcorn and a sweet and salt corn. I said I was in the mood for salted popcorn, and the seller replied, “Isn’t it great how our body just knows what it needs.” They just don’t talk like that on the East Coast – we don’t get in touch with our bodies. We just take them to the gym. On the other hand, it’s nice to be in a place where eating vegetarian doesn’t get you weird looks. (Yes, it really is proving harder to be a vegetarian in Miami that it was in Germany.)

I’m here to work on a project for work. Due to unforeseen circumstances, it’s not been as rewarding as I hoped. Still, it’s great to have a week of cool weather, and to spend time with my former advisor, who’s working on this project. Plus, I get to take a field trip to a wind farm at the end, and that just sounds like science nerd nirvana.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The marvels and mysteries of Miami

A marvel: the beaches
I grew up in the Midwest. Sure, we had beaches. We had the Great Lakes, which provided us with sand dunes and waves and a place to splash around. But the beaches here amaze me. I'm used to water that is green, or maybe brown. And, unlike the water that comes out of the faucet, the water in the Great Lakes (or any of the 10,000 in Minnesota) is opaque. In Miami, the water is turquoise, right up until you walk into it, at which point it is clear. This blows my mind. I feel like I'm in some version of a Hollywood beach, because I didn't know until now that it was possible to see your feet when you're chest-deep in the water. And fish! You can see little schools of fish swimming around your feet. Too cool.

A mystery: They sell a lot of stuff at intersections here.
That is, when you pull up to a red light, people walk through the stopped cars, offering cold water, flowers, and shrimp. The other things they sell are bags of citrus fruit - limes and lemons. The lemons, though, appear to have all the zest removed. I've been puzzled by this, and have discussed it with many people. Removing the zest makes fruit go bad more quickly, and lemon zest is a pretty useful ingredient. I know now what's going on, though. Any guesses? (Answer at the bottom.)

A marvel: the dragonflies
Around campus, I can walk through what can only be called swarms of dragonflies. I'm not a big fan of bugs (as almost everyone knows) but dragonflies might be my favorite bug. They're beautiful, they don't bite you, and they don't give you the plague. The combination of palm trees and dragonflies makes me feel like I've stepped back into the Paleozoic era.

A mystery: why more people don't die in car accidents here
The columnist Dave Barry always joked about the terrible drivers in Miami. I know that lots of people claim they have bad drivers in their city, so I've been busy comparing this to DC. I can't yet tell if there are more bad drivers here, but they do seem to be bad for a different reason. In DC, aggressive driving is the norm. There was a lot of honking and a lot of tailgating. People were bad drivers because they were important and they had somewhere to be. Here, people are bad drivers because they're just not paying attention too much. So the car drifts in the lane a bit, or they pull out in front of you - they're not trying to be mean, they just aren't too worried about their driving. I'm still working on adapting to this new attitude. I honked at someone the other day, and somehow felt like I had been extremely rude. The guy hurriedly backed up out of the lane, and I realized that car honks are quite rare here. I'm still adapting.


***The secret is, they're not actually lemons. They're oranges, and they've been peeled by a machine, and then bagged. This makes them easy to eat, although I think it also means that you have to eat a huge bag of oranges before they spoil.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Vacation retrospective, the UK version

When we were on vacation last month, I didn't have much Internet access and so I couldn't put record quite as much as I had hoped to. Here's the first in a series of posts to remedy that.

Andrew's family's favorite place to vacation is in Wales. It's only a few hours' drive from their house, but offers a very different landscape compared to the Midlands, where they live. My previous visit occurred in December, so I tend to think of Wales as a cold, empty place. In the spring and summer, though, it fills up with vacationers, and the shops and various attractions are open. For us, the principle attractions were the beach (although it was still cold enough that I wore a hat and gloves) and fish and chip shops. The fish and chip shops provide all things deep fried, so I believe my options included a veggie burger or pineapple rings, both battered and fried.
One of our day trips included a trip to Puffin Island. In the picture below, Andrew's father gazes hopefully (but fruitlessly) toward Puffin Island, which appeared to have no puffins on the day we visited.

We had extraordinarily good weather for the UK. It was generally warm and sunny, and we all enjoyed it immensely. I especially appreciated this when we got to Germany, where it was unseasonably cool.
The crowning event of our week was a trip to the opera with Andrew's parents. The tickets were a gift from them, and I found it quite a novel experience to attend opera with parents. My parents, although they did their best to introduce me to many types of music when I was a child, had no special love for opera. In fact, I believe my father offered to pay for my voice lessons only on the condition that I promised never to sing opera. So, it was a great gift. Thanks, G & F!

Friday, May 28, 2010

My new campus

The campus where I now work is very, very pretty. My previous campus had great columned brick buildings, lots of green space, and trees galore. It felt like exactly what a campus should be: elegant, serious, and a bit ponderous. The feeling at my new campus can be summed up in one word: lush. There are a dozen small ponds, many with fountains. There are gazebos and winding paths, shaded study areas and plant life everywhere.
It's also filled with wildlife. Ducks and ducklings are most noticeable right now, but I've also seen turtles, dragonflies, geckos, and birds of all sorts.
Sometimes, as the golf carts zip by me, I think this must be what it feels like when you stay at a tropical resort. But hopefully such resorts have a few more slushy drinks and a few fewer meetings.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Miami

Yesterday it was really hammered home to me that I no longer live in DC. We were running around to thrift stores looking for furniture, when we stopped at a random Greek place for lunch. (My current eating-out rule is "No Cuban." This eliminates half of the options, but I haven't yet figured out which Cuban places, if any, are going to have vegetarian menu choices.) In spite of the fact that half the restaurant was filled up with a private party, we still had a nice lunch while looking out over the river that ran along the back of the restaurant. The two-for-one drink special helped a bit too. (A second, free glass of prosecco? Why, yes, I think I will.) Then the birthday party started getting going, and that's when we realized that the guests really were Greek. The cranked up the music and started yelling "Opa." There was a group dance, a la "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" and dishes were smashed on the tile floor. The waitress helped lead the dancing and smashing, so I assume the restaurant didn't mind. It was an unforgettable lunch.

This may be stating the obvious, but Miami feels like a foreign country sometimes. Our neighborhood, built in the 1920's, is filled with small-ish houses set close together. Most have an enclosed yard, and the plant life is verdant. It feels very green here. When I step outside, I always disturb geckos, which seem to have a prolific population here. Our neighborhood is known for two things: great restaurants and art galleries that are so posh that you might need an appointment to get in. I won't need any of those appointments, as my postdoc salary does not cover the purchase of $4000 vases. If you walk a few blocks in the other direction, though, it's a wasteland where boarded-up buildings and convenience stores proliferate. As we drive around, I notice that it's common for the atmosphere to cycle rapidly from yuppie-ish to not-quite-ghetto and back again. There are huge numbers of boarded-up businesses around. I don't know if this is due to the current economic crisis, which hit Florida especially hard, or if it's always been like this.

The cat thinks she has died and gone to heaven. She's a little old lady who has retired and moved to Florida, and it's everything she ever wanted. She'd happily spend all day in the garden, sitting under a bush and napping. She watches the geckos, and the big tropical plants provide some protection from the regular rainstorms.

My commute to work is longer than I'd like: Google maps predicted a 20 minute drive, which I thought would realistically take 30. It's taking closer to 45 minutes, which is mostly done on freeways with four or five lanes of traffic in each direction. For someone who dislikes driving it's quite exhausting, but I'm hoping it'll get better. I need to experiment with different routes and different timing. Unfortunately, buses aren't an option at this university - only one route goes from downtown Miami to the university, and it would take me over an hour each way. The whole university is really geared towards commuters, whether those commuters are faculty or students.

Andrew will be here staying here in Miami for five more days, so we're using that time setting up the house. He can put up pictures and curtain rods faster than I can, so I'd like to get that all done before he leaves. Then I'll start exploring Miami. I can tell there's a lot to see here, as soon as I get settled.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

A week in the UK

Our new apartment is full up to the top with boxes. Clearly some stuff will have to go. While I deal with all the unpacking, I have a guest post of sorts: my mother-in-law chronicled our week in England and Wales. Check out the pictures and excellent commentary at The Stochastic Gardener. Note how many pictures show me I walking in the great outdoors. Even my mother-in-law knows what a rare event this is, so documentary evidence was collected.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Coming and going

I'm typing this post in an empty house: it contains a computer, the few boxes of things Andrew will be keeping in Maryland, and an unsuspecting cat who will soon be inside a pillowcase, riding on my lap for three days. The upcoming trip seems straight forward enough. We get on I-95 in DC, and then we just keep driving on I-95 until it deadends at the bottom of Florida. Then we're there.

I'm happy (and pleasantly surprised) that everything has gone so smoothly up to this point. Sunday night we were returning from a day trip to see castles in the Alps foothills (the tourist must-see Neuschwanstein, for those who know your castles) when I read a message board at the central train station announcing the closure of the Munich airport. The volcano again. My heart sunk and I immediately started mapping out all the things we would need to do if we were stuck in Munich for the next week. Luckily, the airport reopened the next morning. Airplanes were flying, but much of the airspace over the Atlantic had been closed, so our flight was rerouted to go up over Iceland and then down Canada. This lengthened our trip considerably, so we arrived in DC six hours later than expected. I will forever have a special place in my heart for the friend (aka Mr D. the pig butcherer) who drove up to the airport twice - once for the flight we weren't on, and once to pick us up on the midnight flight.

The last two days in Munich were perfect. We had sunny afternoons, and we took full advantage of them. The first day we rented bikes, which allowed us to cycle to a palace for a tour and then to the English Gardens, Munich's version of Central Park. We had lunch in a huge Biergarten, where Andrew discovered that a liter mug of beer really is a great deal of beer. The next day we took the train two hours south to visit Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau, the castles inhabited and built by Mad King Ludwig. These castles are visited by every tourist that enters Germany, and thus I have now visited them three times. I hope and pray that was my last time. But they are an interesting part of history, Neuschwanstein is the fairytale version of a castle (it's the one copied by Walt Disney) and the surroundings, in the foothills of the Alps, are gorgeous. Plus, it was an excuse to eat apple strudel and drink beer while enjoying the sunshine in the mountains, so I can't complain too much.

Now, the next trip begins. Next stop, Miami.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Wir haben M√ľnchen erreiccht.

The good news is that I can still understand almost everything that I read or hear in German. This was a nice surprise, because I hadn't spoken the language in over ten years. The bad news is that my grammar, when speaking, is atrocious. Andrew is continually impressed that I can lead us around, and hold conversations with shopkeepers, and translate the television shows we watch. And I'm glad I can do those things too, but I with I didn't sound quite so much like a blithering idiot when I talk to people.

We have been lucky enough to time our trip so that we are here during asparagus season. Asparagus season is a nig deal in Germany, because the white asparagus (considered the most delectable) is only available for a week or two. I let the vegetable seller talk me into buying two kilos of white asparagus (that's about five pouds for two people), so we've been eating it almost every night. Each stalk is more than an inch thick - they are so big that Andrew can only eat three for dinner. But with potatoes and Hollandaise sauce it's a meal fit for a king (or a PhD).

The weather has been cold and rainy, so we've been spending a lot of time in museums and coffeeshops. That's not all bad, as there's a lot of cake I want to eat while I'm here. I've made a resolution to learn how to make the multi-layer fruit and cream cakes that are popular here.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

We made it to Europe!

I hope my radio silence made it obvious - we arrived in England last week with no problems. It appeared that our flight was one of the first out of the U.S.; it was filled with people who were beyond grateful to make it back home. The airline offered free cocktails on the international flight, to help all the stranded passengers forget their woes, but I needed no alcohol to celebrate. The completion of my dissertation filled me with sufficient joy.

We spent our week in England taking day trips with Andrew's family. His family often visits Wales, which is the western part of the United Kingdom. I am realizing that Andrew's family has a theme to their excursions, just as my family does, but the themes are quite different. When my family takes trips, it always centers around machinery. For example, if we were to visit a historical village, my father would spend most of his time looking at the old mining machinery or explaining how the farming equipment works. In the same way, Andrew's family focuses their attention on animals. We visited an alternative technologies center, a sort of outdoor showcase of alternative energies, conservation, etc. What I remember most about the visit, though, is how much time we spent looking at the birds that were flying around and admiring the sheep and goats grazing nearby.

Our next destination was Amsterdam. The plan was to take the train to Hull, a port on the East coast of the U.K., where we would catch an overnight ferry to the Netherlands. The train trip was uneventful right up to the point where (an hour from our destination) the train conductor announced that the power cable on the next stretch of train track had been stolen. I do not know why one steals a train cable, but it was rather inconvenient for us. We had to get off at the next station and take a bus the rest of the way. As we waited for the bus ("Sorry, there's traffic, we're not quite sure when the buses will arrive.") and the drove through a series of small towns, I worried continuously about whether we'd make the ferry. While we had left lots of extra time, I hadn't allowed time for a leisurely bus tour through rural England. In the end we made it, and the ferry was every thing I hoped it would be.

I wanted to take an overnight ferry because Andrew and I spend too much time watching old black and white movies where the stars cruise across the Atlantic, taking plenty of time to dance in their evening dress and exchange witty reparte over drinks. I'm sad to report that our fellow passengers did not include Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, although there were some Hell's Angels. I lived the old movie fantasy as much as possible by having a meal, sharing a drink at the bar, and then retiring to our cabin, which was larger than most New York hotel rooms.

The next day we arrived in Rotterdam, a port south of Amsterdam, and took a bus to Amsterdam. April 30th is Queen's Day, a national holiday seemingly devoted to wearing orange, holding city-wide yard sales, drinking, and blowing airhorns. I'm not precisely clear on how these activities became tradition, but it makes for a rollicking city-wide party. We joined in the yard sale browsing and drinking, but couldn't keep up with the hardiest of partiers.

We're here to visit my cousin, the redoubtable Alexis in Amsterdam, with whom I share a love of good food and drink. We took a day trip to Delft, the city famous for blue ceramics and the burial place of the royal family of the Netherlands. We toured churches, drank coffee at cafe tables next to canals, and generally lived a picture postcard of European travel. I have also rediscovered some dishes that I love - my cousin makes a mean green pea and mint risottos, and we had some excellent pumpkin soup. One of the things I love about travel is that it always re-ignites my desire to cook.

Tomorrow we're off to Munich. I don't know when I'll next get to a computer, but I'll update as soon as I can.