Tag Archive: garlic


I have mentioned before that one of the most supreme delights of cooking alone is the absence of mystery. I know what I like. I know the amount that I like things in. My only dietary restrictions are the obligatory exclusion of olives (of all sorts) and mayonnaise (except for dill mayonnaise, which is perfectly acceptable). When I go into a kitchen to cook for myself, the only question I have to ask myself is what I’m in the mood for. Sometimes, I have a stare down with everything in my cabinets. At others, ideas simply bubble to the surface of my consciousness like perfectly cooked ravioli. Admittedly, cooking is probably my greatest form of self-love, and for someone who spends so much time thesising, reading, writing, and working at the Writing Center that they have become known to their undergraduate friends/coworkers as “the vampire” (all in good fun, I have been assured, though the label is in part due to the darkness of my apartment and mostly due to my resulting pale complexion), a hot meal is the knife that cuts through the cold, buttery stress of my crazy day. It is how I survived graduate school.

Exam week is always interesting to witness, especially from my standpoint. My father once told me to run the race of life like it’s a marathon, but even during the first few weeks of the semester, I typically find myself sprinting through hundreds of pages of reading daily, scrawling short papers at an alarming rate.

Much like the rainy, cold weather of this southern Michigan June, the conditions of my final semester were not favorable to sprinting. For once, I had to run the marathon. My weekly writing and reading assignments were completed a mere day or so before they were due. Add in finishing my thesis, and you are guaranteed a recipe for at least some chaos, sort of like slicing one too many onion in a saucepan that is already three sizes too small. Toss it wrong, and on top of still having to cook dinner, you have to clean up your own mess.

As with most things I have finished in my life, I don’t really think about how I do them. I’m not really sure how I wound up with a job in Japan. Was it luck? Hard work? A combination? Some cosmic force guiding me like a lost lamb or dragging me along on strings, a limp puppet? It is the same with graduate school. Trials are often the hardest when you are neck-deep in them, just ready to sink below the surface. Then, there is the obligatory breaking point. After days of being sliced at by everyday rigors, the right knife–still sharp enough to cut but dull enough to lack the poise of its sharper cousins–cuts you deep. For me, this was April. The conclusion of the thesis. I had to get it right the first time. Time–it was running out. My hideous lime green wall clock was ticking, ticking, each passing second a derisive laugh, a reminder that my best was not enough.

The e-mail came back, and beneath the constructive criticism, I forced a message into it. I was a failure.

It was over. There was nothing left to do but weep. Weep openly at my keyboard. This was it… my one chance, and I blew it. Surely, this would send my life spinning off into a catastrophic black hole from which I would never emerge. But this is the real test of dedication. In a moment when everything was eroding around me, I dried my eyes after letting myself have five minutes, engaged in a phone conversation with Melissa to take my mind off things, dusted myself off, heaved myself up at the keyboard, and kept going.

This thesis was not going to beat me.

It was fitting that I should experience this three weeks prior to my thesis defense, three weeks before most of my coworkers and peers were going through the same slump of not sleeping, skipping meals, drinking gallons of coffee, and neglecting themselves entirely for the sake of their studies. Sadistic as it is, I almost see more self-love in this than I do in cooking. The enduring dedication, even in moments of doubt and despair, and even at the cost of almost everything, opens doors that we sometimes can’t see when standing smack dab in the middle of a dark and empty labyrinth of everyday rigors. The subject of my thesis was Victorian literature, but what I learned in the process was so much more than that–and certainly a subject to explore in another blog entry. Empathy was my constant companion during exam week, when I finally caved to  my complete and utter lack of motivation and exchanged my pen and pages for a pot and a wooden spoon. Instead of reserving these tools solely for myself, I share them–and their delicious results–with those still immersed in the rapid boil of finality, a prelude to some well-earned decompression.

When I dug out the eight-quart stainless steel soup pot after fourteen weeks of neglect, I knew immediately that I couldn’t approach it the same way as I did when I cooked for myself. This soup was not for me; it was for my creative nonfiction class, the class that made me a blogger, which meant I had to deal with not just my own idiosyncratic palette but those of nine fellow students and one instructor.

And then, there were the dietary restrictions.

Some people choose not to eat different things for ethical reasons. Others cannot eat them because of medical conditions. They respect my dietary decisions and/or my lack of food allergies, one that I return, and one that I show by taking things like this into consideration when I find myself staring at my own distorted reflection in the bottom of my soup pot. Of course, it is a challenge. How can I possibly accommodate for a vegetarian and for someone who is gluten intolerant?

Italy provides the answer.

In my early days of exploring soup, I fell for Minestrone. As my tastes continued to develop, we grew apart. The challenge of feeding a class gave me a reason to get back in touch with my old favorite.

What happened afterwards was nothing short of a feeding frenzy of graduate students.

Some may consider it fortunate that I only got two bowls. I consider it a mission accomplished, an opportunity to give back to those who have given me such amazing criticism, those who have contributed to my development as a writer. It’s impossible to forget the taste of something so savory.

Vegan Gluten-Free Minestrone
(Based on this recipe)*

Finished Product

(For anyone wondering, I was in a super-mega hurry to take this picture… ^_^)

Ingredients

  • 4 cups gluten-free reduced sodium vegetable stock
  • 1 can reduced sodium tomato sauce
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 28-oz can diced tomatoes
  • 2 small onions (or 1 medium one)
  • 2 tbsp garlic
  • 2 zucchini, diced
  • 1 yellow squash, diced
  • 1 can northern great northern beans, rinsed
  • 1 cup kale, chopped
  • 2 teaspoons dried basil
  • 1 ½ teaspoons dried Italian seasoning
  • 2 springs fresh rosemary
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 tbsp salt
  • 8 oz brown rice pasta

Directions

  1. In 8-quart pot, sauté garlic and onion in olive oil for about 5 minutes.
  2. Add stock, tomatoes, and spices to pot. Simmer for about 20 minutes.
  3. In a separate pan, cook 8 oz pasta in slightly salted water according to package directions.
  4. Add veggies and pasta to soup. Simmer for another 10 minutes.
  5. Add tomato sauce and water if needed to create more cooking liquid.

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*Note: If any of my readers know about cooking gluten-free, then they will probably tell me that I screwed up big time, the reason being that both wood (like the spatula I used to stir) and plastic (like the cutting board I chopped the veggies on) are both porous enough to absorb gluten and retain it even after being washed. FORTUNATELY, the person I mentioned earlier does not have severe reactions to small amounts of gluten. Otherwise, I would have felt guilty enough to pay the hospital bill.

When cooking for people with celiac disease, they are the best sources of information. The internet and prior experience tie for second. Asking around an organic grocery store to get some ideas could also help if you’re in a pinch. ^_^

http://madamegluten-freevegetarian.blogspot.com/2011/03/gluten-free-minestrone-gluten-dairy.html

Cooking is not a science. Some people say it is, but the truth—or my truth—of the matter is, there has never been anything scientific for me about cooking. I simply walk into the kitchen and observe. Look around me. What is available? I am a forger in familiar territory. My eyes have roamed these shelves more times than the Canadian geese have migrated. I just exaggerated a little bit, but it’s not technically lying if you’re just adding something to the truth, particularly if you’re a story teller. In the same way, cooking is not a science. I don’t let the truth, or a version of it, get in the way of a good culinary experiment. I suspect Benjamin Franklin did not expect lightning to strike his kite any more than Thomas Edison suspected the wire in his light bulb to glow. With cooking, it’s different. I expect the outcome to be positive in the most general sense of the word because I’ve combined ingredients that I like to eat and brought them together in harmony, sort of like a choir, only pleasing to all five senses rather than just the eyes and ears.

Granted, positive things don’t always happen when I mix two things together. I once had a hankering for something sweet and spicy, so I mixed some hot curry powder with creamy peanut butter. The problem is, I used too much and wound up with something that tasted vaguely of sawdust and cayenne pepper. Point taken: curry and peanut butter cannot simply be mixed together. My food taught me yet another valuable lesson.

But I didn’t need food to teach me mathematics. I needed a good high school calculus teacher and a good college calculus professor, and even by their powers combined, they couldn’t make me understand anything past series. Science requires precision, and cooking… well, cooking requires a lot of taste testing. Try that in a chem lab and let me know how it turns out.

I also didn’t need food to teach me philosophy, but it did help a little bit. You are what you eat, after all. I imagine that would make me some sort of chicken soup. Some days, I’m nothing more than ordinary chicken noodle. On others, I’m a zesty chicken chili. On others still, I must be chicken curry since I eat it for breakfast on occasion. In either case, I am an odd arrangement of ingredients that vary only slightly from day to day—and nine times out of ten, a recipe for disaster no thanks to some hereditary clumsiness.

I eat; therefore, I am.

People say baking is a science, too. An exact science. If you put a few extra drops of lemon juice in a batch of soup, then fine. It will be a little lemony. Toss in something to balance the flavor out, and life is good. But some extra flour in the cookie dough, a missing egg, and a sporadic oven, and suddenly, your warm, fluffy dough pillows turn into crumbly pucks of horror and sadness.

Fact: I am not a scientist. Last time I was in the chemistry lab, I nearly set the school on fire. Too bad my air-headed track athlete lab partner was cool-headed enough to turn off the gas. Otherwise, I would have been a hero among high schoolers for the first, and probably last, time in my life (because, at least in my high school, bookworms with straight A’s were hardly material for the “cool” table). I am a literary critic… I guess. That’s what you become when you finish master’s coursework in English, right? I approach recipes for baking the same way I approach recipes for soup, which I approach the way I approach prose: they are blueprints totally open to interpretation. And if my interpretation happens to include cloves where they were not included before, then who’s to stop me if the bread supports my reading?

Much like books, everyone has their own taste in food. Mine wavers somewhere between Italian, Mexican, and Japanese on most days, with heaps of soup and sandwiches to fill the gaps. The original more than likely holds enough interest, but I have a strange way of looking at the world. I read significance into things and savor contradictions the same way I do curry… although some days, I feel like the world is insipid as plain gelatin—or else it sets me smoking like a charcoal grill.

I’m not hard to please, but underneath all that literary critic frosting is a thin remnant of my childhood, the wafer of writer-ness that, like a Twinkie, will endure long past its expiration date. I was, and still am, a storyteller. Even in verbal recall, I can turn something as ordinary as going to the grocery store into a harrowing tale of how the lady on her cell phone was right in front of the stock selection and how some child in the produce asked his mom if they could have broccoli for dinner. Little facts like that stick with me, especially if they stir up some emotional reaction. Of course, by the time I retell the story, the lady with the cell phone will have been there for five minutes instead of 90 seconds. But then, I could get into the whole discussion of perceived versus actual time; it’s not a lie. It’s just my version of the truth, my perception.

I suppose food really has taught me something about that whole perceived versus actual time business, but perhaps I should save that for another blog entry.

I am not a scientist. I am an interpreter. I can’t be boxed in by lines and directions, but I can be inspired by them… hence, the creative nonfiction class. Of course, not crediting the inspiring force in some way is called plagiarism in my line of work (although I suppose creative writers call it artful stealing… or borrowing, depending on who you are). I saw a bread recipe on Stephanie’s blog, Modern Christian Woman, and I knew the minute I did that I had to try it, and as most interpreters do, I adapted this recipe to my diabolical purposes of feeding a hungry Writing Center staff during what would be my last end-of-semester party with them. They have given their heartfelt approval, and I pass it on to her with gratitude.

Interpreting is only half of my job, though. As a literary critic, I am expected to share my interpretations with others, for better or worse. After all, what good are two ginormous loaves of bread without a company to break it with?

Garlic Cheddar Herb Bread

(Inspired by Stephanie’s Recipe for Garlic Cheese Bread)

Epic Loavery

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 cups milk
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 4 tbsp butter
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 2 tbsp. minced garlic
  • ½ cup warm water
  • 4 ½ tsp active dry yeast
  • 2 tbsp spicy Italian seasoning grinder spice (sold at Kroger, but you could easily add salt and red pepper flakes to Italian seasoning.
  • 3 tbsp, plus 2 tbsp shredded Parmesan and Romano cheese

Directions

  1. Heat butter, milk, sugar, garlic, and grinder spice in a small sauce pan until butter is melted. Let cool.
  2. Combine yeast and water in a large bowl and let dissolve. Trust me… use a large bowl. You will kneading (spelling intentional) it later. 🙂
  3. Add eggs, milk mixture, cheeses (reserve 2 tbsp of the grated, though) and half of the flour to the yeast. Mix with a wooden spoon.
  4. Add enough flour to make a dough (roughly an additional 1-2 cups).
  5. Knead dough for 7-10 minutes.
  6. Spray bowl with pam and return dough to bowl. Cover and let rise for an hour. The dough should double in size.
  7. Punch down dough. Remove from bowl and make two loaves of roughly equal size. Place on a cookie sheet, cover, and let rise again (about one hour). The loaves should again double in size.
  8. Give the bread a rubdown with olive oil. I did this with my hands, but a brush would work as well. Grind some extra spice on top. Sprinkle with remaining parmesan. Pat everything down nicely.
  9. Bake at 375 degrees for about 30 minutes.

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The bane of my existence is human error.

I fully and freely admit that I make mistakes all the time. Poor life decisions? You bet. Just this past week, I learned one of my mistakes first hand. A combination of pre-exam stress and PMS led to writing one e-mail that has changed things for the better, but even here, I am not faultless. Putting things off isn’t something I normally do unless the task involves potentially hurting someone’s feelings. I’m lucky to have friends that understand me enough to get that, friends who are honest enough–and genuine enough, or maybe mature is the word–to seek improvement when I have to be the asshole that sends the long and elaborate e-mail explaining the issue in a manner that will not generate conflict. Bottom line: I will become a better person for it. I will correct my past mistakes and be more assertive.

Damn being an English major. I can do things better in writing than I can verbally half the time, and the other half, I can’t do well in either.

Two weeks ago, I handed over my most precious possession: a paper copy of my thesis, all 94 pages. Its intended destination was the desk of none other than the department head; that which I loved like a child was being sent to a paper shredder to be bathed in red ink. Still, it must be done for the sake of timely departure. I gave it to the secretary, clutching it in both hands, and said, “This is my thesis, and to me, it is the most important thing in the world. Please, be careful with it.”

Cue two weeks of insanity, two grueling weeks where I forget that the sun shines, that the world is peopled, that I am surrounded by bars–temples of temptation that beckon me at nearly every turn. I must resist them. I must resist them to finish my coursework. The nights grew long and sleepless. The days are measures not in minutes but in words that slide out of the keys, shifting like hourglass sand that swept me away in its current. There is no rest for the weary. No food for the hungry. No cool and calming water to slake my thirst. I found spare moments of calmness, but it was not until last night, Saturday, that I felt a wave of relief crash down on me. Ten hours of nearly non-stop work, and I had given birth to the final drafts of the documents that would end my classes. One poorly written twenty-page paper and corresponding handout, and one Friday morning, separated me from the finish line I have been dashing towards for two years.

Of late, my dash has become more of a Smirnoff sort of stagger. My vision is touch and go under the additional stress and fatigue. I’ve lost count of how many meals I’ve eaten out this week. The coffee shop has become my house of worship, and I attend mass daily. Hail coffee, curry, and tea lattes, the lifeblood of exam week students! Still, my perseverance has paid off, and I have much to show for my devotion. One class down, one more to go… and my defense is only six days away. I treat myself with a slightly longer than usual break, then sleep. It took me forty-five minutes, but I finally managed to reign Morpheus in.

Sunday morning began at a slow pace. I threw my laundry in, meandered the internet stream for about a half an hour, and checked my e-mail.

Then, human error struck.

My most cherished possession was not only missing in action; it had never come into the hands of the department head. I can only imagine how it deviously sneaked out of eye shot while the secretary was busy with something else, or how, hapless and homesick, some sinister paper mites crept out of the stapler and gnawed it to dust.

Once again, I find myself turning to soup for the answer. The last of last week’s leftovers, also the last in the fourteen-week soup for the sole challenge, is sitting in the fridge. Between page 15 and 16 of an English paper, and after two thoroughly irritated phone calls, one to my parents, one to Melissa, I heat the last bowl and depart to throw my laundry in the dryer. There are some things in life you can help, things like how spicy your soup gets; and then, there are some things you just can’t. Some people deal with it in sighs and complaints. I deal with it using a slew of clauses strung together by frustration… and a shrug. I can sleep easy knowing I’ve done all I can.

After fourteen weeks, the soup is finished, as the thesis will soon be… but it’s not quite the same. I don’t plan to write another thesis, but I plan to keep making soup. My life is made of soup and stories; what good would I be without one or the other?

Chicken Tortilla Soup for the Sole

The Final Bowl

Ingredients

  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 3-4 tbsp canola oil
  • 4 chicken tenders, frozen
  • 4 cups chicken stock
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 1 tbsp garlic, minced
  • 1 can Rotel tomatoes
  • 2 tbsp chili powder
  • 2 tbsp cumin
  • ½ tsp cayenne pepper, plus another ¼ tsp
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2-3 sprigs fresh cilantro
  • 1 fresh lime
  • 1 package of 10 corn tortillas
  • 1 cup frozen corn
  • Shredded sharp cheddar cheese to top soup

Directions

  1. Dice onion. In three-quart sauce pan, heat olive oil. Add onion and garlic and sauté.
  2. While onion is sautéing, heat canola oil in a separate pan. Cut six of the tortillas into ½ inch strips and fry until crispy. Remove with whatever cooking implement you have that works best for that sort of thing, and place on a plate covered in a paper towel. Sprinkle with salt and ¼ tsp cayenne pepper. Set aside.
  3. Add chili powder and cumin to the pan. Cook for about 30 seconds to a minute.
  4. Add chicken stock, frozen chicken, tomatoes, and bay leaves. Simmer until chicken is cooked (about 20 minutes).
  5. Remove chicken and shred. Return to pan.
  6. Tear remaining 4 tortillas into bite-sized pieces.
  7. Add frozen corn and tortillas to the pan. Cook for about 10 minutes.
  8. Dice cilantro. Remove soup from heat. Add cilantro, remaining cayenne, and the juice of one lime to the pan.
  9. Top with crispy tortilla strips and shredded sharp cheddar (or cheese of your choosing).

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One of the great things about being a sole chef is that, nine times out of ten, you don’t have to worry about cooking for anyone but yourself. That means you get to make what you like with ingredients you like in the amount that you like. You also get to cook things how you like them. No time to defrost the chicken? Boil it. All you have is a giant bag of frozen chicken tenderloins? Good enough if you like white meat. Want some extra curry? Go for it. Being a sole chef is like Burger King on steroids: you can have it your way, anyway you want. There are no cheeseburger limits. The kitchen is your oyster, the pan your pearl, and the fridge the gateway to possibilities.

But sometimes, admittedly, it gets a little lonely.

I’ve cooked for a lot of people since moving out. Friends, coworkers, classmates. I’ve even been known to throw down enough from-scratch alfredo or shredded taco meat for a small gathering on occasion, but more often than not, whatever is in the pot is for me and me alone. There is a fine line between selfish and solitary. Have I crossed it?

But sometimes, when soup is not enough to keep me going, I rely on people outside the four walls of my apartment. I have to. Even though I am self-reliant most of the time, the undeniable fact is that people need other people, sometimes in their highs, sometimes in their lows.  That’s why I’m glad my friends were with me in Chicago when I got the job. That’s why the minute my thesis defense is done, one of my friends is (hopefully) taking me to a bar to toast to the end of an era. But more than anything else, that’s why my friend panicked and called me when I told her I was about to break down in tears. She missed the eruption by mere minutes, but it was one of those days when all the chocolate in Hershey wasn’t going to fix a damn thing.

“It’s the thesis,” I explained. “And everything else. I’m just tired.”

It would have been mortifying to break down crying on the phone, but luckily, I had gotten that out of my system. I talked in circles for twenty minutes, mainly because it made me feel better, but partly because I was grateful. And as I walked around in my own words, I found enough solace to press onward. There are just some things that soup can’t fix. If fixing my thesis was as easy as chopping it up and throwing it in a pan with a bunch of fancy seasonings, then I would have done it ages ago. I guess a thesis is kind of like that. Word soup, made of blood, sweat, tears, and carpel tunnel.

I, of course, reciprocate this “dealing with the chatter of a very disgruntled and thesisbound graduate student” thing when the time calls for it. Some people simply need to vent about their lives to get through the day. Birds of a feather flock together, I suppose. I’ve taken phone calls for every flavor of trauma and stupidity. Parents, significant others, health issues, coworkers… you name it, and I’ve probably heard it at least once on the phone, and I don’t mind that sort of thing because, hell, I complain about what I perceive as everyday stupidity as well. It vexes me to no end that a bunch of college-educated people still haven’t learned how to use common sense. Every time someone misses a beat, I scratch my head and call people whatever expletive happens to spring to mind. When driving, I’m a little less judicious about bottling up my frustration. Things like my infamous road rage make me thankful that my friends understand I can be a jack-ass because I am ninety percent sure that not everyone would.

This soup actually started two weeks ago in a conversation. “I’m running out of ideas,” I confessed. “I can’t think of anything else to make. I’m saving my favorite for the very end because I’m not sure how well it’s going to work.”

“Make sweet potato, then.”

I confess that I have been leery of sweet potatoes ever since the first time I laid eyes on a canned yam. I don’t consider myself a picky eater, but when something looks so foreign and repulsive, like some sort of alien egg out of a sci-fi movie, even I’m a little put off by it. Irrational, yes, but so is much of what goes on around me.

Not too long ago, around the same time the soup discussion took place, my old coworker Morgan celebrated her twenty-fifth birthday. I hadn’t seen her in three months, so I decided to attend her party. On the menu was, of course, sweet potatoes, but mashed, not canned. Suddenly, I was faced with one orange mound of terror that remind me of all the other fears I had faced over the years. When I was eleven, I faced my fear of roller coasters with my best friend from childhood. A few months ago, I faced my fear of sushi with my friend Korrin and a martini in my hand. Raw fish is now something I’ve been indulging in once a week now. Sweet potatoes, of course, were no exception. Overcoming fears is a part of life, I guess, and if our friends aren’t there to do it, then how will we overcome?

Can gratitude be expressed in soup? To me, that seems like a culinary experiment worth trying just once.

Chicken and Sweet Potato Soup for the Sole
(Based roughly on this recipe)

The Penultimate Bowl

(Dedicated with gratitude to my favorite respiratory therapist… never mind that she’s the only one I know)

Ingredients

  • 4 cups chicken stock
  • 3 chicken tenders, frozen
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1 tbsp freshly ground ginger
  • 1 tbsp garlic
  • 1 tbsp curry powder
  • 1 1/2 tsp garam marsala
  • A little over a pound of sweet potatoes
  • 1/4 cup baby carrots, chopped
  • 1 bunch green onions, chopped

Directions

  1. Saute onions in olive oil for 5 minutes.
  2. Add garlic and ginger. Saute additional 2 minutes.
  3. Add curry and garam marsala. Saute for another minute.
  4. In the interludes between steps 1 and 4, chop carrots and sweet potatoes.
  5. Add 3 cups chicken stock, chicken tenders, carrots, and sweet potatoes. Simmer for 20-3o minutes, or until sweet potatoes are tender.
  6. Remove chicken tenders and shred. Let cool for about 10-20 minutes.
  7. Using a food processor that is hopefully better than mine, puree carrots and sweet potatoes.
  8. Return to pan. Add remaining cup of chicken stock and shredded chicken breast. Heat 10 minutes.
  9. Chop green onions and sprinkle over the bowl.

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About two months ago, just before beginning my creative nonfiction course, I began to notice something strange with my vision. I was seeing the world a little differently than normal, and not just because I had been living alone for over a year. It had nothing to do with the fact that I had successfully completed an interview for a job in Japan or the fact that I was looking at the world differently to meet my daily quota of haiku.

I was coming back from a visit home over Christmas when I noticed the road signs doing some odd things. The white lettering on the green background started shifting in ways that I instinctively knew was not normal. Looking back on things, I had probably been experiencing similar things since August of 2011, but I had simply been to busy to sit down and take notice. Things in the distance started shifting in the same unnatural way wherever I was, whether I was looking the gridded window panes or the Max and Emily’s menu. Letters seemed to occupy an infinite number of places at the same time, all centered around a concentric line of points that surrounded the center point where they rested. My eyes weren’t watering because of onions, but the same fuzzy effect of tears lingered, at least for a few seconds, whenever I shifted my eyes from the computer screen to the distance or from the page to the horizon.

Something must be wrong. That was my first thought. And what better time to figure that out than a trip home for Spring Break, where the vision insurance actually covers most of the exam?

By some miracle, I called the place both of my parents went when they started having vision problems and managed to get an appointment the next day. I pulled into the office and approached the front desk. “Are you here for an appointment?” the receptionist asked.

“Yes, ma’am, at 12:40.”

“Alright. Our computers are actually down right now. What’s your name?”

I told her.

“Alright. We’ve got some paperwork for you to fill out.”

So began the gauntlet. I filled it out hastily. “We’ve got two ways to check the backs of your eye,” she explained. “We can either use the drops or a scan. Now, these scans aren’t covered by your insurance, but they start at $39…”

“I think I’ll stick with the eye drops.” Having just returned from a trip to Chicago, I wanted this trip to have as small of a financial impact as possible.

Michelle, the optometrist’s aid, had the same color of hair as the receptionist did: blonde. It jumped unnaturally as she got further away. She ran me through a gauntlet of exams that left my eyes feeling achy and irritated, particularly the drops. She had threatened me with pain beforehand, jokingly, and I had thought she was serious. “Oh, no… I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you… there isn’t any pain.” She then proceeded to drip what I still firmly believe was onion juice into my eye. “Oh, I forgot to warn you… the drops sting a little when they go in. The doctor will be with you shortly.”

The overly happy optometrist appeared before I can return to Bleak House. He shook my hand in his vice-like grip and introduced himself.

“Alright. We’re going to run one more test.” He started flipping through lenses, asking me which one looks clearer. In the space of two minutes, about 20 lenses, and my best guesses at clarity, he has identified the issue.

“Well, the good news is you’re 20/20 in both eyes still. Your cones and rods look excellent; I expect your eyes will be healthy forever. What you have is a spasm of accommodation.” He drew me a little diagram to explain the issue, and I watched him draw what I thought looked like a cored bell pepper. “You have this lens in the back of your eye that automatically adjusts when going from distance to close-up. It’s supposed to go 250 both ways. Yours is only going 175 out and 100 back in. That’s what’s causing the words to look a little jumpy. Now, the causes of this are stress, anxiety, and fatigue. I’ll bet you have all of those as a grad student.”

“Yeah, and then some.” We shared a laugh.

“Now, all you need to do are these eye exercises. Hold this pencil with words on it close to your eye, just before the text starts to blur, then focus on the text on the wall. Do ten reps for each eye twice a day. Oh, and reading glasses would also help. You need +0.75s.”

“Awesome. I think I’ll just do the exercises for now.” Talk about duplicity. I asked the receptionist for some insurance information, and the figures drive me so close to weeping that I resolve to hunt them down elsewhere. Unfortunately, I met with a rather annoying spasm of accommodation: my grade of reading glasses is too small for any store to carry. Thankfully, by the power of the internet, I have managed to exercise some buying power that will hopefully help correct this spasm at a much lower cost.

Looking back on my life, I realize I have met with many spasms of accommodation, not all of them effecting my eyes. The biggest one so far was moving out on my own. The adjustment took three weeks, during which I experienced a variety of panic attacks and related illness. Soup did nothing to cure my tremors. I simply needed to tough it out. Things got better once I learned how to fill the empty hours with labor of all kinds.

But now, I’m on the cusp of a new spasm of accommodation called culture shock. In five months, I will engage in a 17-hour flight to Japan, where I will begin a job as an English teacher. Right now, I can only question how long it will last, and though I look forward to it, I anticipate the adjustment period to be a little longer, the challenges to be infinitely more daunting, and the jet lag to kill me softly.Worse still, I will have to adjust to an e-reader after a lifetime of paper books… and how will I manage to enjoy anything with the smell and texture of paper, the ever-alluring perfume that drew me down this path to begin with?

Seventeen hours is a long time to fly, but this is what I wanted, and what I still want, more than anything: an opportunity to prove that I can be happy with a Master’s degree in English. It will just take some effort, much like white chicken chili. The first time I made it, I was bitterly disappointed. It was too beery. Not creamy enough. When I re-heated the frozen part, it was so revolting that I promptly ushered it to the trash can. I had eaten good white chicken chili on one occasion, in a soup cook-off at my alma mater. My attempt to match it failed. Someday, though, when I had more experience, I vowed to return to the recipe that had so shamed my cooking skills.

The Chicago trip threw my soup rhythm a bit; the pot of my life bubbled unevenly beneath an onslaught of social opportunities, and the homework remained neglected like the black crust on the bottom of a scorched pan. “I need to borrow the kitchen,” I informed my parents on Tuesday at a local Middle Eastern restaurant.

“Why?”

“To cook soup,” I answered. “Besides, I need to cook you a ‘thanks for the support’ meal.”

“Alright,” my mom answered. “That’s fine with me.”

“What do you guys want?”

“How about some chicken chili?” my dad asked.

Maybe it was just another spasm of accommodation in my life, but suddenly, I was presented with a high-stakes opportunity to trump the soup that once trumped me. Move over, Iron Chef, and don’t let the door hit you on the way out, Chopped. This is reality, not reality TV; this was my opportunity to impress the man who educated my palette for twenty-three years with my own cooking skills, to show him how much I had grown under his tutelage. Using the barricade of “It’s homework, so stay out of my kitchen,” I managed to throw down a meal without much interference.

“That looks like a mighty small pot of soup. What are you guys going to eat?” my dad asked, giving a hearty laugh. “Oh, you haven’t added the beans yet. Still not sure what you’re going to eat, though.”

“I’m making biscuits and salad to go along with it, so it’ll be more than enough. Just trust me.”

The results are in. I got rave reviews the whole table ’round.

But I respect my readers’ independent streaks. Partly because of some minor resistance to the Japan plan on the parental front, I like to let people make their own decisions.

White Bean Chicken Chili for the Sole
Makes 4 servings… and feeds a family of three with one leftover bowl for dad’s lunch
(Inspired by this recipe, but with 50% more chicken)

The Seventh Bowl

Ingredients

  • 1.5 lbs chicken breasts
  • 2 fresh jalapeños
  • 1 poblano pepper
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 medium onion
  • 2 cans cannelloni beans
  • 1 tbsp chili powder
  • 2 tbsp cumin
  • 2 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 1 tsp Mexican oregano
  • ½ tsp onion powder
  • ½ tsp garlic powder
  • ½ tsp black pepper
  • 14.5 oz chicken broth
  • ½ cup half and half
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 1 cup Monterrey jack cheese

Directions

  1. Dice chicken. Saute with onions, cumin, chili powder, cayenne, onion powder, garlic powder, and black pepper. Cook for 5 minutes, or until chicken is cooked.
  2. Dice jalapeños and poblano. Cook for an additional 2 minutes.
  3. Mince garlic. Add and cook for 3 minutes.
  4. Add chicken stock and half and half. Simmer for 35-45 minutes.
  5. Drain and rinse beans. Add to pan, cook for about 10 minutes.
  6. Add sour cream and mix well.
  7. Add cheese and also mix well. Simmer for a final 10 minutes.
  8. Top with black pepper and cheddar cheese before serving. Goes great with a garden salad and some garlic cheddar biscuits (which are like these chipotle cheddar garlic biscuits, except with sharp cheddar instead. I’ve got a couple of pictures in the slideshow… ^_^).

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“To every thing there is a season.”

-Ecclesiastes 3:1

I have a confession to make. I have lived in Michigan for twenty-one years, and I’m pretty sure I hate winter more than I hate politics. Both have nearly ruined me as a human being.

I can never be right in politics no matter how hard I try. Maybe that’s why I quit trying.

Seven years before coming to grad school, in a time when I was a budding academe, I decided to attend my final astronomy lab despite the white-out conditions we were expected to get. I watched the road vanish under threads of snow as I drove. They wound and unwound together with every passing vehicle.

The lab lasted for two hours. In that time frame, the world became an impassable blank screen. My fair-weather drive home was twenty minutes. This time, it took me an hour and a half. I cruised at the speed of twenty-five miles an hour with my teeth clenched and my arms tensely glued to the steering wheel. Every time I hit the brakes, I prayed to God that I wouldn’t skid into the intersection or get rear-ended. Every turn was a white-knuckled tango with old man winter. Four-wheel drive SUVs sped past my 1997 Plymouth Neon and cast a blanket of snow over my slow-moving car. I would have given anything to see them roll into a ditch.

Have I mentioned that my battery light was on the whole way home?

Neons have a few nasty habits, but one of the worst is corrosion on the poles of batteries. A bluish or greenish chalky substance forms around the poles and cuts current to the rest of the car but only if the car isn’t running already. For some reason, it reminds me of cocaine. It certainly cuts the car’s capability to function.

When I got home, my parents told me, “You shouldn’t have gone out in that shit, but I’m happy you’re home.”

I responded, “I didn’t really have a choice, now, did I? I had to turn in my final project or else get docked for being late.”

Our conversation is a real show of values. The way I see it, they have no sympathy for someone who (in a manner of speaking) wades through a bunch of shit to ensure success. My rebuttal says that I value success more than self-preservation.

You would think by now I had learned my lesson, but no… schoolwork comes first no matter where I go. I expect to piss a lot of people off during Spring Break because of it. Then again, they aren’t the ones with the mile-long to-do list mocking them every step of the way.

Ultimately, my season of reprieve will come when I have that fancy piece of paper in my hand, the one that says, “I did a bunch of shit while putting up with even more shit from people who don’t get it. Here’s the document saying I did so with the president’s John Hancock and the official University seal.” Until then, I will be in a perpetual season of work regardless of what it’s doing outside.

I said earlier that I hated winter, but there are things I like about it. No, it is not the damn snow or the laughing children who play in it. It is not building my upper body strength by scraping an inch of ice off of the car or earning my badge of courage by wading through an ice-encrusted campus to retrieve a graded final paper.

Winter is not just snow season.

It is asparagus season.

Suddenly, the Filet Mignon of vegetables drops in price from an average $3.00 a pound to anywhere between a dollar to a dollar and a half. Aside from the pine trees, it is the only green thing in sight, and as far as soup goes, it is far more valuable to me than a Christmas wreath… unless it were a Christmas wreath made of asparagus. Now, that would be something.

I have assigned my own significance to winter. When the snow hits the ground as it did this past Friday for practically the first time all winter, I had only one thought on my mind.

Curry.

Last year, Michigan was buried under an obscene number of snow storms. Several Tuesday evenings were buried under about nine inches of the white, powdery stuff, and unlike my first institution of higher learning, this one values the lives (and probably wallets) of its denizens. Classes were cancelled for two Wednesdays, and on one, they were delayed until noon.

I woke up at seven-thirty on the first occasion and blinked against the blue-gray stuff that would grow to a white glare as the sun continued to rise. How could the world change so much in eight hours, and how could I be so oblivious to it? Granted, I have been more oblivious to more pressing changes like current events, but the snow reminds me just how blank my days among the books really are.

What could I do to liven things up?

The answer is curry. It is practically always curry. I used what I had on-hand since the roads were impossible and cooked a double-batch. During Snowmageddon: The Sequel, I thawed out the leftovers. In both instances, I devoured a bowl of the luscious, exotically flavored concoction while working on onlines attempting to get a clue about genre analysis, which I’m still not entirely sure I understand despite what my academic record says.

This past Friday was a particularly bad day for snow because I had to trek across campus in backless heels and a dress coat. I was one of six Writing Consultants selected to workshop with students competing in the New Venture competition. “New what?” a friend of mine asked during our weekend phone conversation.

“New Venture. Business students basically pitch ideas for companies. They compete nationwide for the top prize of $30,000.”

“And you had to dress up for this?”

“Yeah… apparently, someone who went last week wore jeans and never heard the end of it.”

“Oh… was the student you worked with dressed up?”

“Well.” I’m loathe to say it. I’m loathe to even write it. “Ironically, he was wearing pajama bottoms and a hoodie.”

I feel like I was duped into wearing those backless shoes. Winter tricked me, so what better way to get back at it than to show it that I have enough control to cope with its shenanigans? I turn up the heat a few notches on Sunday morning and get to work. For the next few days, I will be enjoying curry asparagus soup in the hopes that it will discourage this season enough to stay away until I am safe at home for Spring Break, engaged in doing exactly what I would be doing if I were snowed in at Mount Pleasant.

This bowl is a minor triumph over circumstances beyond my control.

What now, winter?

The Sixth Bowl

Curried Chicken and Asparagus Soup for the Sole

(Based very VERY Roughly on Slightly Plagiarized From Inspired by This Recipe)

Ingredients

  • 3 chicken tenders, defrosted
  • 1 lb asparagus
  • 1 tbsp garlic, minced
  • 2 tbsp olive oil, separated into 1 tbsp portions
  • ½ tbsp butter
  • 2 tbsp flour
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • 1 cup half and half
  • 1/3 cup lemon juice
  • 1 tsp curry powder
  • ½ tsp garam marsala
  • ½ tsp black pepper

Directions

A Cautionary Foreward: For those of you who have not cooked with asparagus before, the bottoms can get a little, shall we say, woodish. I’m talking “chewing on a Popsicle stick” woodish. Unless you enjoy gnawing on lumberesque substances, I would recommend breaking one stem beforehand and then chopping the very bottoms off. See pictures two and three in the slideshow for a detailed shot.

  1. Dice chicken into cubes.
  2. In 3-quart sauce pan, brown chicken in olive oil. Dice asparagus.
  3. Once chicken is browned, add garlic. Saute for additional 1-2 minutes until garlic is golden.
  4. Add butter, remaining olive oil, and flour. Mix well to make a roux.
  5. Add chicken stock to pan and whisk until roux dissolves.
  6. Add cream, lemon juice, curry, and garam marsala. Simmer 25-30 minutes until chicken is tender.
  7. Add asparagus. Cook until crisp-tender (about 10-15 minutes). Add black pepper to taste.

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I just bought my first box of saltines since 2010. These crackers are fit for all manners of cheese, particularly those deli slices of colby or colby jack. They are also fit for my off-brand peanut butter. And if I am having a bland day, I’ll eat them plain. They are, in short, the ideal snack food because of their versatility. They don’t taste like anything and can therefore be topped to the choosing of the consumer, or else devoured naked in times of duress to satisfy a salt craving.

But they are not fit for my soup.

Imagine, if you will, building a house (or any sort of structure, which, for the record, you don’t want my help with. I will make your construction gents lemonade and feed them with whatever I have on hand, but if you give me a hammer, I will somehow manage to lodge it in the concrete foundation or get it stuck in the PCP pipe… never mind how. I will manage. Trust me.). Now, a house is a very personal thing because it needs decorated and furnished with lots of stuff that speaks about who you are. You put stuff in it. Make it your own. Hang pictures on the walls. Throw area rugs on the floor. I’ve seen this happen with soup: some people delicately dip their crackers as they do biscuits (re: cookies) into tea. Others feel more destructive and crush the offending wafers to a fine powder, then sprinkle their remains into the bowl like the ashes of a cremated fisherman. As for me, I’m a dipper, and if I get oyster crackers, I will eat them prior to taking the first bite of the soup.

Returning to my point: say you’re at a diner and you order a bowl of soup. It looks a little like Progresso. This calls for some crackers, as they are the closest thing to pleasant texture you are guaranteed to get out of that bowl.

Say you’re in Mount Pleasant at The Brass Café, and you order your nine dollar sandwich with soup (which you always should at The Brass). You order the three bean (you’ve already had the chicken and rice once before, and it was good, but you’re looking for something a little different). It comes out. It’s tomato based and spicy enough to make your nose run a marathon but not spicy enough for you to lose IQ points by continuing to eat it. Aside from cooling your mouth with the water you ordered, you cut the flavor’s intensity with the crackers. Joy and bliss ensue as you finish the soup. It’s nice soup, and you don’t really have any alternatives for dipping because you bought it from someone else.  Similarly, when you buy a house, you don’t have much choice of what’s already in it, but you can change it once it belongs to you.

Just so with my soup. I spend a good, hard hour and a half in the kitchen manufacturing the Monticello of soups (I wouldn’t compare it to the Sydney Opera House or Frank Lloyd Wright’s stuff, but in terms of quality, it’s decent enough to be a Monticello), cutting vegetables into uniform chunks and turning my little slice of heaven into the Tower of London by torturing myself half to death with the smell of it cooking. The last thing I want to do is default to painting all of the walls white and buying my furniture from WalMart (unless your wallet necessitates it, which, if you’re building the Monticello, I doubt you are in poverty). I don’t cook anything I don’t like, and I happen to enjoy my soup quite a bit. In fact, it’s probably my favorite thing to eat. So, if I’m spending that much time on my soup and plan to dunk something in it, why not make it something worthwhile?

Generally, I think soup is fine as it is and doesn’t need any help, especially if I’m in control of everything that goes into it. In week 2, I bought a nice bakery loaf of multi-grain bread to go with my chicken broccoli-cheddar soup. This week, just before going to work on my chipotle chicken chowder, I decided that something delicious needed to go in there, and what better than some garlic-cheddar biscuits? They’re the only reason I ever want to go to Red Lobster and Ruby Tuesday’s (I’m still weary of fish, and while Ruby Tuesday’s has a decent salad bar, I personally think that Bennigan’s has better burgers), and if I had know they were so easy to make, I would never have had a reason to set foot in either establishment in the first place (if not for Ruby Tuesday’s Salad bar, that is).

Although I don’t trust in skinny chefs, I do believe in eating healthy, so I’ve altered a recipe I found online to omit the butter (gasp), and they turned out fine. The world did not careen off of its axis or anything drastic like that, and I didn’t miss the butter flavor once I sopped these in chowder stock. I would call them Monticello windows, but that’s carrying the metaphor too far, don’t you think?

Chipotle Cheddar and Garlic Biscuits for the Sole

The Finished Product

Ingredients

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • ½ cup milk
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • ½ tsp. baking powder
  • 1/8 tsp. salt
  • ½ tsp. sugar
  • 2 tbsp. canola oil / butter
  • 1 tsp. olive oil / more butter
  • 3 tsp. parsley flakes (reserve 1 tsp.)
  • 3 tsp. garlic powder
  • ¼ cup shredded chipotle cheddar cheese

Preparation

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. In bowl, mix flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, sugar, 2 tsp. parsley flakes, and garlic powder.
  3. Add oil and milk. Mix thoroughly with a fork.
  4. Fold in cheese.
  5. On a baking sheet, spoon dough.
  6. Top with olive oil and remaining parsley and pat down lightly.
  7. Bake for 15-20 minutes.

Yields 9-10 biscuits, just enough for me to perform quality control.

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