Friday, December 25, 2009
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
It's even better if the food smiles at you, don't you think?
Saturday, December 12, 2009
(If you're curious, the picture is the vestibule at the Lyric, which is lit in much warmer tones than this picture suggests. And that guy whose head you see at the bottom of the picture? He's a bartender - I got him in the photo by mistake.)
In any case, if you aren't familiar with Czech opera, you won't know which opera I went to see (unless you've already checked the Lyric's schedule while reading through this paragraph above, in which case I salute your ability to multitask, even if I am slightly peeved that you multitask on top of my blog). It was Leoš Janáček's Káťa Kabanová (that's ley-ohsh yah-NA-check, if you're curious about all those diacriticals over the composer's name. The opera title is sometimes transliterated as Katya Kabanova and is sometimes just referred to as Katya).
Still doesn't ring a bell? I forgive you, because I had never heard of it either. (I won't spoil the story or bore you with details about the composer, but if you like you can read about Janáček here and a synopsis of the opera here.) Suffice it to say that Janáček was born in Moravia in the middle of the 19th century and was heavily influenced, like many of his historical and geographic contemporaries, by folk music. The Czechs consider him of equal stature with Bedřich Smetana (composer of the opera The Bartered Bride and the symphonic cycle Má vlast (My Fatherland)) and Antonín Dvořák (known in this country for the New World Symphony), but he is not very well-known in the States. In my humble opinion, he deserves to be. Let me explain why.
Upon learning that Janáček wrote Katya in this '20s, I was a bit worried. My impression of music from the 1920s was dissonant, atonal, unpleasant, and obtrusively modern - not the sort of thing I would want to sit through for a few hours. But I was also drawn by the fact that I had never heard of either the composer or the opera, so I bought a ticket and went. And I was happily surprised. As I read in the program notes (and mentioned above), Janáček was influenced by his contemporaries of the late 1800s, including the great Russian Romantic (as in the period of music history, not the amorous tendency), Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky, while definitely a departure from the Classical era, is most definitely not atonal, unpleasant, or modernist (he was also gay, but that's not relevant to this discussion). Janáček's music is not unlike Tchaikovsky's, but with slightly more modern overtones and - because of the opera's subject - bleaker and harsher, well-suited to great rushes of emotion and the weight of enormous tragedy. I liked it.
I promised not to give away the plot of Katya, and I won't, but I will say a little about it. The title character is trapped in a marriage with Tichon, who is henpecked not by Katya, but by his mother Kabanicha, with whom he and his wife live. The fourth member of this happy household is Varvara, a foundling adopted by Kabanicha who is just a bit younger that Katya. Kabanicha is a domineering witch (figurative, not literal), and when Tichon leaves on business, Katya gets a chance at freedom, which she seizes with disastrous results. For those of you interested in the technical side of this, Katya is a soprano, Kabanicha a contralto, Varvara a mezzo-soprano, and Tichon a tenor. There are more characters and more voice parts (though the basses get a bit shortchanged), but to tell you who they are and why they're important would give away the story.
The music, as I've mentioned, was quite good, but what struck me the most, in a positive way, was the way this opera was staged. In keeping with the idea of bleakness - the opera is set in a Russian village on the banks of the Volga - the vast expanse of stage was painted gray, and the entire rear wall was a film screen depicting the sky, filled with clouds, which grew darker and more sinister as the opera progressed. There were only two pieces of real set, Kabanicha's house and a ruined chapel. Each stood in the middle of the stage during their respective scenes (never on stage together, of course), with the vast gray stage on each side and sweeping off to the horizon in back. Kabanicha's house, cleverly, was cut in half and put on casters so it could be turned between scenes, so scenes outdoors would happen in front of Kabanicha's porch, and scenes inside the house would happen inside the house, which would be turned so we could see inside. The ruined chapel, which we see in the penultimate scene of the opera, is appropriately cold and also gray. In addition, all the supporting characters (not the six or seven named characters) were dressed in black, and even some of the named characters wore black or brown. All in all the staging made a significant contribution to how I perceived the opera, and in this case, is worked very well.
I suppose now you're curious as to what happens in this opera that requires such bleakness, but it would be hard to retell - better to see it. You won't be able to see it in Chicago, unfortunately - tonight was closing night. Why not read the synopsis, and then add it to your "To See" list?
Sunday, December 6, 2009
This dreary weather is what I've been dealing with, off and on, for the past month. Sometimes, like this morning, the sun comes out and lights up the entire apartment. And heats it too, which I appreciate because the sun is considerably quieter than my radiators. I spent the better part of Monday basking in all-natural sunlight while writing a paper, and believe me, it made writing the paper much easier. Today I'm working on a different paper, and I've got different weather in which to do it. Interestingly, this weather approximates quite succinctly how I feel about my current paper and the material about which I'm supposed to be writing (political economy - ugh). Funny how that happens.
So, what's the view like from your window?
Saturday, November 21, 2009
Then I moved to Chicago.
Lest that sound too much like Mecca, I will admit that Chicago is not exactly a world-renowned center for the operatic arts - that honor is reserved for places like New York and Milan - but it does have an opera house, with a resident opera company, and it performs regularly. It also has a student rush ticket program by which a student can get tickets that don't sell for $20. On the main floor. So, naturally, I bit.
I went to see Giuseppe Verdi's Ernani, which is not a well-known opera, but I've always preferred the slightly less conventional. So I bought my ticket a week or two in advance, dressed up (rocking the vest, as usual), and took the Metra downtown. I managed to find the Civic Opera House (stage pictured above) and obtain my ticket with little difficulty. I sat in row W, right side, on the main floor (that picture above is my view from that seat). Not too shabby for $20. Damned uncomfortable seat, though. I suspect they're original to the building (1920s - and you think I'm kidding but I'm not).
As we waited for the first act to begin, I couldn't help but listen to the couple behind me (I was surrounded by couples, it seemed, and wished I had brought my other half along, but he wasn't interested in seeing Ernani). The guy sitting behind me was Italian, the girl American, both obviously students who, like me, had gotten their tickets through the rush program, which is open to all the universities in Chicago (there are quite a few). Although the girl sounded a bit ditzy, she was having a fairly intelligent conversation with her boyfriend (who, despite being Italian, had never been to an opera before) about opera and such. But then the conversation turned to dancing and she mentioned that she had taken dance lessons at one point. She had learned the samba, the rumba, the cha-cha, and the Vietnamese waltz.
"Vietnamese?" he asked.
Maybe it was Venetian, she mused.
He hadn't ever heard of a Venetian waltz either.
It was supposed to be very graceful and dignified, she said.
Silence. Then: "Do you mean Viennese?"
And curtain. (Except not really, because minutes later she tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I could take a picture of her and her boyfriend in their seats. I gladly obliged, though I think they'll find that the dignity of being at the opera doesn't really come across in a poorly lit, over-flashed photo of two white people in dark clothing. None of my business, though.)
At last the curtain rose, and Ernani began. Two intermissions and three hours later I stumbled out into the night. It was a fairly good performance. The soprano who played Elvira (Sondra Radvanovsky, an American) was without a doubt the best part. The central difficulty of opera - and the way in which, in my limited experience, I have seen the most opera performers fail - is that you have to sing and act. Not one or the other, both. Radvanovsky did it, and well - her three males counterparts were all rather wooden by comparison. I won't presume to judge their singing, since I don't know the score well enough, but whenever Elvira was on stage I looked at her, even if someone else was singing, because she was the most interesting thing going on. And the audience agreed with me - Ms. Radvanovsky got far more applause than any of the other performers.
Now the plot, in my humble opinion, is not terribly convincing - though I'll let you read the synopsis and decide for yourself - and I would have been perfectly happy had the entire fourth act been cut. Ernani is one of Verdi's early operas, though I find fault not with the music (which was plenty interesting) but with the libretto, mainly some of the jumps in the plot. We are forced to "suspend our disbelief" in places, and when you combine some singers who don't act very well with a plot that feels forced, you can have trouble. But in any case, I can say I've seen Ernani, I've been to Chicago Civic Opera House, and I had a lovely time. There are some excellent performances coming up in early 2010 - who wants to join me to see Faust?
Saturday, November 7, 2009
And sometimes one is the invitee - as I was for the second time since I've moved here. One of my friends won two tickets to a Chicago Cultural Center tour of Chicago's Greektown, and invited me to join him. We hadn't seen each other since I last visited him in April, and I had a (homemade) scarf to give him, so I said yes. Also, lunch was included. Who am I to turn down authentic Greek food?
We returned from our rather entertaining walk and visited a museum displaying art by Greek-Americans; one of the exhibits was focused on Cyprus, a situation I know only a little about. As I understand it, the Turks invaded Cyprus to protect the Turkish minority there from the depredations of the Greek majority, but the Turkish solution was to divide Cyprus politically, which made no one happy. Fortunately for the future of world peace, I know a candle store in Greektown with the solution to this problem in a bottle. Just be careful - those contents are under pressure. Do not expose to heat or store at temperatures above 120 degrees. Keep out of the reach of children and shake well before using. And remember not to point it at yourself.
Sunday, October 25, 2009
Let me give you a little background. I went home to attend a function at my alma mater (the opening of a grand new campus center), my first visit since I moved to Chicago at the end of August. On my last day I packed my things and took my suitcase down into the side hall, near the side door, where I intended to load it in the car so I could commence my journey back to Chicago. Then I went back upstairs to get my messenger bag (with my computer and various other things in it). When I came back downstairs to my suitcase, I saw this, on the right.
Now, I know the cat (William) missed me, because when I arrived a few days earlier, he was quite affectionate. Now, the top of my suitcase is not simply a place you fall into - you've got to want to get up there, because it entails jumping up to a location you can't see from ground level. And yet Will decided to jump up onto my suitcase. Why? Could it be because he didn't want me to leave? (In any case, here's a picture with better light.) Now, I know that psychologists insist that animals don't have emotions, are incapable of higher level thinking, don't have souls, etc. But I can't help but wonder if Will is smarter than the scientists like to think. Why else would he bother to get on top of my suitcase?
And so Will's sister Lucy doesn't feel shortchanged, here's a picture of her in full sprawl on the front hall floor. Cute, no?
Saturday, October 17, 2009
Well, Miss Manners never said if it worked for the symphony, but I nevertheless accepted the kind invitation from the gentleman and went. Unfortunately for him, I'm dating someone else. (!)
Now, I like to consider myself fairly well-informed when it comes to classical music, so I was a bit perturbed to realize, upon being informed that the concert was a performance of Bruckner's 4th Symphony, that I didn't know who Bruckner was. To Wikipedia! After reading a surprisingly well-written article (one keeps ones expectations of Wikipedia low as a precaution, and then is pleasantly surprised upon each visit to find that one is not the only literate person in the universe), I found out that Bruckner's first name was Anton, he was Austrian, he revised his works almost obsessively, and he was violently killed when one of his rivals smothered him beneath a gigantic Sacher torte. (I made that last one up, but if I put it on Wikipedia, how long does it take until it becomes the Truth?) Armed with these useful conversation starters, I hopped onto the Metra on a blustery October afternoon, rain threatening (but in the end failing) to come, and was soon deposited in downtown Chicago.
I met my friend for coffee (actually, he had tea, and I had hot chocolate, but who says "I met my friend for hot beverages"?) and was either hit on or patronized by the baristo - I still can't tell which - and then we strolled off to the symphony (2:00 performance, but it was general seating so we got there well in advance). There was a coat check, and lots of red carpet. And loads of middle-aged to older people. Apparently I'm not the only youngish person who hadn't heard of Anton "Sacher Torte" Bruckner. I snapped the picture above on my phone before I turned it off - I apologize for the blur, but it's the only one I got without peoples' heads in it.
Bruckner's 4th Symphony, as it turns out, is quite good. There's a good balance between passionate, plaintive, and playful, and it was quite enjoyable. The Chicago Symphony played well too, though not well enough for me (or my companion) to give them a standing ovation, for which we received glares from some members of the audience and the first violinist (he could see us from the stage). All in all, quite an enjoyable afternoon.
So, if Bruckner has a 4th Symphony, there must be three more, right? It's time to give them a listen, and also time for a little audience participation, in the form of comments. Have you, dear reader, ever heard any of Bruckner's works? If so, what did you think of them? If not, are you going to run off and check them out of the nearest library now that I've brought them up? No? Do you even like classical music? How about Sacher torte?
Sunday, October 4, 2009
Speaking of bowels, I sometimes smell, when walking somewhere, an odor which reminds me of...well, yeah. Big city sewers, I guess.
Anyhow, although I know there are lots of things going on all around me, unbeknowst to me, to keep the city of Chicago running (well, I guess that's one word for it), but I seldom see evidence of it with my own eyes (save the AT&T men and their holes...). But here, at the right, is something which piqued my interest about "what lies beneath."
What do you mean "what is that?"?
It's a street. To be more exact, a cobblestone street. To be even more exact, it's a bit of archaeology uncovered at the corner of 53rd and Kenwood during some roadwork. That white object in the lower-left-hand corner - and the smaller one above it - are those little barrier things municipal services people use to block ones way. That which is being blocked - only from one side, you'll note - is a patch of cobblestone street, uncovered during a road resurfacing project. They've been doing patching work ever since I moved here (and probably were doing it before I got here too). Seeing this bit of brick makes me wonder what Hyde Park was like back when cobblestone streets were commonplace. It's entirely likely that this bit of street was laid before the University of Chicago was founded (1890). Just imagine horse-drawn carriages clopping down 53rd Street, tree-lined avenues, sunshine, fresh air, the World's Fair...
The street has since been paved over.
Thursday, October 1, 2009
Isn't it beautiful? All those veins, and the luminous orange glow, and the little dark lump which is an orange seed, from whence more orange will spring, given time and effort...Also, if you don't focus too closely, it looks a bit like the sun is setting behind a giant wedge of orange. In poetry - when I used to write poetry - I remember referring to the sun as an orange. Fortunately, sun rays don't leave sticky residue on the countertop.
Speaking of fruit and poetry, here's an appropriate piece from Shel Silverstein's Where the Sidewalk Ends:
Ol' man Simon, planted a diamond,
Grew hisself a garden the likes of none.
Sprouts all growin', comin' up glowin',
Fruit of jewels all shinin' in the sun.
Colors of the rainbow,
See the sun and rain grow
Sapphires and rubieson ivory vines,
Grapes of jade, just
Ready for the squeezin' into green jade wine.
Pure gold corn there,
Blowin' in the warm air,
Ol' crow nibblin' on the amnythyst seeds.
In between the diamonds, ol' man Simon
Crawls about pullin' out platinum weeds.
Pink pearl berries,
All you can carry,
Put 'em in a bushel and
Haul 'em into town.
Up in the tree there's
Opal nuts and gold pears--
Hurry quick, grab a stick
And shake some down.
Take a silver tater,
Fresh plump coral melons
Hangin' in reach.
Ol' man Simon,
Diggin' in his diamonds,
Stops and rests and dreams about
Is anyone else craving fruit?
Thursday, September 24, 2009
After registering for classes - a mini-fiasco in and of itself, as graduate registration for the U of C is done by paper, and my registration card was lost - I decided to go explore the massive hulk that is the Regenstein Library, figuring it would do me some good to familiarize myself with it. After an hour or two crawling around that concrete honeycomb (I'll get a photo eventually), I decided it was time to leave, checked out a book (some German plays translated into English, because I want to finish them before classes start), and left. I had a meeting in an hour, but nothing to do until then, so I thought I'd find a quiet spot and read.
I was just passing through the Cobb Gate, a lovely portal topped with stone gargoyles, when I saw out of the corner of my eye was looked like a little garden, hidden behind some hedges. Intrigued, I stepped inside, and found that it was not a garden, but a set of ponds, topped with waterlilies and fallen leaves. I found a bench at the far end of one of them, opened my book, and read.
Although my reading material was quite entertaining - a satirical play by a Swiss-German author of whom I am very fond - I could only keep going for so long before I became distracted by my surroundings. I looked up over my book and shot the photo above with my phone. It's quite a lovely little nook that I stumbled into - I think the scientists, possibly the botanists, are responsible for it. Of course, winter will change it, but it may retain a certain kind of beauty nevertheless. We'll have to wait and see - I promise photos. But I could get used to stumbling across little pockets of pulchritude (it means beauty - look it up if you don't believe me, and blame the Romans for the ugly root) and, because the U of C is such a rabbit's warren, I very well may find some other lovely places. I'm looking forward to it!
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
I was wrong.
I was with a friend in the U of C's official bookstore, run by Barnes and Noble, when I ran across a rack displaying Jansport backpacks, the top of which is shown here. Big deal, right? My friend was considering getting a new bag, so she browsed through the contents of the rack while I looked aimlessly off into space. Eventually my eyes wandered to the Jansport rack, and I gazed unfocusedly at the obviously posed photograph of young, trendy people cavorting in the leaves.
I practically pounced on the display, much to my friend's bewilderment, and looked, not at the people, but at the building they were standing in front of.
It's Lawrence. Main Hall! LAWRENCE!
I was, to say the least, shocked. There is was - the east side of Main Hall, which I know so well from approaching it for classes for three years running. The stairs where the really cool Humanities people would smoke, blatantly disregarding the smoking halo, the ugly retro lampposts, the light above the door that was on whether it needed to be or not - Lawrence!
Now, it's fairly obvious that this shot has been edited, because the light on the people in the foreground is inconsistent with the light on Main Hall; the background is a fairly dismal fall day, sun behind the clouds, but the people in the foreground have direct light on then, casting shadows (look at the orange pants, and the shadow of the right leg on the left, as well as the shadow the Asian girl is casting on the guy in red's face - there's not enough light going on outside Main Hall for that to happen. Light more light, eh wot?). But even so, here's Lawrence, in the middle of the University of Chicago, in a glossy advert! I was a bit giddy for the rest of the day - what a surprise!
Friday, September 18, 2009
What's for Dinner?
This lovely dish to the right I have named Sol-y-Luna, from the Spanish for "sun and moon," because when I plated it the first thing that came to mind was an eclipse. But let me tell you, this is one of the most delicious eclipses I've ever encountered. Also very easy, which is a great selling point. I chopped up about an eighth of a white onion (that is, a quarter of the half which remains after my other adventures), and sautéed it in butter. Then, once the onion began to brown, I added three eggs and scrambled them enough to break the yolks and mix with the onion. Then I let them coalesce (like an omelette) and added oregano. While the eggs cooked I microwaved a pita, and, after deflating it (it blew up like a football - or a bag of popcorn during the heating process - kind of funny, I thought), I put it on one side of the plate. Then I slid the omelette onto the other side, with the two overlapping in the middle. I added picante sauce (not salsa - there's a difference. You don't believe me? It's true - picante sauce is thinner and, in my opinion, less distracting as far as "mouth-feel" is concerned), and then some shredded cheddar cheese to the top. Very easy.
Preparation: 5 of 5
If it's not obvious from above, the prep work for this was a breeze. A little chopping of onion, but it was so little onion it hardly mattered. Everything else really went straight from fridge or pantry to the action (the pita excepted, since it went through the microwave.)
How to Improve: I keep telling myself to cut up the onion ahead of time to save time in the long run, but I never do it.
Presentation: 5 of 5
I don't just give Sol-y-Luna all five points because the picture finally turned out - really, I think this is a very aesthetically pleasing dish. The yellow of the eggs pops against the tan of the pita (and the blue of the plate), not to mention the red of the picante sauce and the orange of the cheese. The triple roundness of plate, pita, and omelette taps into a sort of Holy Trinity of circular symmetrical wondrousness (yes, I am slightly obsessed with the circle, at least as far as food is concerned). Although the picante sauce is a bit off-center (did you notice? I only did once I saw the photo - I was too busy stuffing my face to see it any earlier), this is really what I like to see.
How to Improve: Center the picante sauce!!!
Taste: 9 of 10
The soft and fairly neutral eggs took on the oregano well, and the picante sauce is wonderful painting on the canvas of egg and pita. What I tasted of the cheese was good, but it was fairly weak. To my pleasure, the onion wasn't too dominant, as it has been in previous dishes (I used less, that's why). All in all, the flavors meshed very well and I really enjoyed this dish.
How to Improve: My primary complaint is that we could have stood to see more personality from the pita. And it would have been great if it hadn't been so tough (but, then again, I suppose pitas are meant to be bitten or torn, not cut with a knife and fork). In any case, the deficiencies of the pita are hardly my fault, so I'll mostly ignore them. I should have heated the picante sauce (and used more of it - it's good stuff!), not for reasons of taste (it tasted fine, and I think there's something alluring about physically cold sauce that's actually hot), but to help melt the cheese. Also, more cheese (viva Wisconsin)!
That was way too many parentheses. I'm sorry.
Health: 4 of 5
This is not a terribly healthy dish, but on the other hand, it's not terribly unhealthy either. Eggs, cheese, and butter do make it somewhat high calorie, but if this is the main meal of the day (it was mine), then that's not as much of a sin as it could be. I admit the criticism that there are no vegetables, but that could be solved by the addition of a salad (I didn't because I knew I wouldn't have room for it, but even so I think I can hear the spinach crying in the refrigerator because it feels lonely and spurned). This is meatless, so vegetarian-friendly, but it would probably give a vegan hives from thirty yards away. Oh well.
Ingenuity, Creativity, and Thrift: 4 of 5
An omelette isn't original, nor is the idea of pairing a spicy sauce with eggs, but both are new concepts in my fledgling kitchen, which I intend to make good use of in the future. Thrifty? Well, yes, if you reckon that it's meatless, but I'll admit that in this case, I wasn't thinking too much about cost. Though eggs were $0.85 a dozen, so three eggs is only 21 cents. Not bad. This would probably make it into "One-Dollar Meals" without too much effort.
Overall: 27 of 30 (A)
This dish is guest-worthy! And furthermore, we've learned the usefulness of picante sauce, a newcomer to my kitchen. Perhaps I should use it to spice up those Pommes-de-Terres Hachées...
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
What's for Dinner?
I washed one of the potatoes, about the size of my fist, and cut it into pieces about a inch long and put half the pieces into my food chopper, chopped them, emptied the contents into a colander, and chopped the other half. Then I rinsed them to get rid of extra starch and took a quarter of that Spanish onion that I used for the Savory Chicken with Peas and chopped it in the chopper. I put the potatoes and the onion in a mixing bowl, added garlic powder and black pepper, and stirred. In a saucepan I melted half a stick of margarine that I had been trying to figure out what to do with ever since I generated it making cookies last week, and then spooned in the potato-onion mixture. I sautéed it, warmed a pita in the microwave, and washed some spinach (also purchased this afternoon at $.60 for a fifth of a pound). Once the potatoes were sautéed (I attempted a potato pancake, but the potatoes wouldn't cohere), I spooned them over the heated pita and the bed of spinach, garnished with shredded mozzarella and cheddar cheeses, and took the above photo (again, a bit more yellow than it was in real life). So, how'd I do?
Preparation: 4 of 5
A bit of chopping was necessary, and while I don't like cleaning the food chopper (it's not a processor - it's too small), it does make chopping a breeze. The sautéing took a little longer than it should have, and I should have melted the margarine beforehand, but altogether not too hard, and since I had the onion cut in quarters ahead of time, no tears either!
How to Improve: Have the onion chopped ahead of time so only the potatoes need to go into the chopper, melt the margarine before putting it in the pan, and make sure to use the right size pan (I started out one size too small)!
Presentation: 5 of 5
Please excuse the less-than-ideal picture - this is what I get for taking photos after dark. But really, this is what I look for in presentation in a home environment (restaurants are expected to be flashy, but this is about what I expect from home cooking). The whole thing is balanced, but breaking up the pita provides "action" beyond the mere circular. The spinach is an excellent blast of bright color, and the brightness of the cheddar cheese inside the mozzarella draws your eye straight to the middle of the plate. Just right.
Taste: 9 of 10
Crisp, fresh spinach meets the warm potato mixture, the cheese provides a little fat and the onion gives a little kick. All of this is set against a pita, which provides a perfect blank canvas on which the other flavors can run rampant.
How to Improve: The pita is a little too dull, and should be heated more, maybe even buttered, to give it its own taste. The potato-onion mixture could have been cooked a little longer to make it approach creamy, and tone down the onion a whisper. Still, doing well.
Health: 4 of 5
Had this dish not had spinach, I don't think I could have justified preparing or eating it, as it would have been entirely white (save for the cheese garnish). However, it's a completely meatless dish and, if you remove the cheese and sauté in olive oil rather than margarine, it would also be vegan, which is a pretty good. However, it is a bit carb/starch heavy; fortunately, the spinach lightens it up.
How to Improve: We don't actually need all that potato - a higher ratio of vegetable (spinach, and maybe some others) to starch would give this meal more serious health-food credentials.
Ingenuity, Creativity, and Thrift: 4 of 5
Since I took my inspiration from a well-known comfort food and even consulted a recipe for pointers, I can't claim much ingenuity or creativity on this one. However, I am proud of venturing in a meatless direction, and I'd not done a whole lot of cooking with potatoes before, so those are both good steps. But the real selling point for this baby is its price.
Because it's a meatless dish, this is a really inexpensive meal. One potato can't be worth more than a quarter, a quarter of an onion has already been determined to be worth about 7 cents, the spinach was 60 cents total and I didn't use even half (call it a quarter), and some cheese, maybe 60 cents-worth, plus a pita for 20 cents (10 in a pack for $1.99). Really, a meal for under $2, and I only ate half of it, so $1. Perhaps I'll write a book called "One-Dollar Meals: Cooking on the Cheap." In this kind of economy I have no doubt that it would sell.
Overall: 26 of 30 (A-)
While not a culinary revelation, this dish only needs a little tweaking before I could serve it to a guest, even a vegan one. Not only that, it need not play the role of main dish - the same portion I cooked tonight could be split in half and used as a side to accompany something else, like a small-scale meat entrée (pork medallions, for example), or stuffed inside pitas or other dough and baked to make an appetizer.
So, when are you coming over to dinner?
Monday, September 14, 2009
What's for Dinner?
Tonight's entree is a savory breaded chicken (cornmeal, garlic, basil, pepper, and non-salt seasoning in the breading) sauteed in olive oil, served over a tortilla and topped with green peas and mozzarella cheese. Let me just say that that sounds considerably simpler than it actually was. (Read on.)
Preparation: 3 of 5 (yes, this time I'm giving prep points too)
Although breading is tempting because it's usually delicious, I'll admit right now that it's a bit of a pain in the neck, and if you've never made breading, you may have trouble with the proportions. I'm not convinced that my breading was the best possible, for reasons I'll discuss shortly. But anyhow, I mixed a breading, while the chicken was defrosting, then cut the chicken in cubes, dipped the cubes in olive oil, and then dredged them in the breading. Then I sauteed the breaded chicken in a little more olive oil while I microwaved peas. Warm a tortilla, spoon on the chicken, add mozzarella cheese while it's hot, and then the peas. Now you've got a meal.
How to Improve: Making the breading ahead of time would be a great time-saver here, and once I have a breading recipe perfected I'll probably do just that.
Presentation: 5 of 5
This dish succeeds where Poulet a l'Orient didn't - it retains the bright green colors of the vegetables, and the yellow-gold of the chicken is very appealing. The tortilla reinforces the idea of roundness and balance, for a pleasing aesthetic. All in all, very good presentation. Not revolutionary, but quite good for a single man's kitchen!
How to Improve: If we want to make this really avant-garde, we need to go for clean, strong lines and add more color. Halve the portion size (which would be OK since I could only eat about half of what I prepared - the rest is in my fridge, waiting to be eaten tomorrow) and drizzle with a red salsa, add some colorful garnish, play with geometric patterns, etc.
Taste: 8 of 10
The chicken was not quite as flavorful as it should be - again, a flaw carried over from the last dish. This time I blame the breading, which itself was fairly flavorful, but did not penetrate to the chicken itself (it's a breading - breadings are fairly inert, all things considered). However, the breading did help keep the chicken nice and tender. The tension between the salt of the mozzarella and the sweet of the peas is excellent, and should be replicated again.
How to Improve: The tortilla, alas, contributes very little, and should probably be substituted with something more assertive, like a flatbread or, better still, focaccia. And the cornmeal breading is clumsy - try a flour breading next time, because the flour will contribute much less of its own taste, allowing herbs and spices to be tasted instead. It will also block out less, since a flour coating would be thinner than the cornmeal equivalent.
Health: 3 of 5
The vegetables here are secondary, as in the previous dish, and aren't present in large enough quantity to really make a nutritional difference. There is very little basic carbohydrate and too much emphasis on protein, not just in the cheese, but in the meat, which is a predominate feature.
How to Improve: Although not hugely unhealthy, the meal should be better balanced as far as the food groups are concerned (less meat, more carbohydrate and vegetable).
Ingenuity, Creativity, and Thrift: 4 of 5
Good as it is, meat's not cheap, and its share of the overall meal should be reduced, with something cheaper and lower-calorie substituted in (another vegetable, or several).
How to Improve: Several elements could be changed or added to give this dish more personality - a more flavorful base in place of the tortilla (but alas that's all I had), and a flavorful topping like salsa are the two that come immediately to mind. However, this dish offers great opportunities - why not reduce it in side to an hors d'oeuvre, served over toasted rounds of French bread? Or, chop the chicken more finely, add greens, and make tacos and/or a salad out of it. The basic combination is sound, and it lends itself to other arenas fairly easily.
Overall: 23 of 30 (B+)
Again, not bad for an experiment, but not quite guest-worthy either. The basic idea is quite stable, however, and only needs tweaking to improve it to A quality. With so many suggestions for how to make this dish better listed above, it's only a matter of time before it - or something like it - makes it to my culinary A-list.
Incidentally, I now have a hankering to experiment with frittata...
Sunday, September 13, 2009
This was my third week at St. Thomas, and I'll admit that I had no idea what to expect. It's the only Catholic church in the Hyde Park neighborhood, and when I went to scope it out a few days after I moved in it was locked up tighter than a drum - not surprising given that we're in a big city, but it would have been nice to get inside to have a look around. Apparently it was not meant to be, so my first glimpse was when I came in for Mass the first time, three weeks ago.
At right is what I saw - a baldacchino that reminded me strongly of the Vatican, not to mention enough hardwood (pews and floor) to make a purist weep for joy, beautiful stained glass, a carved altar rail, iron grilles with gates in front of the altar to the Madonna and various other saints, painted statues, an ornamental pulpit, candles hanging above the altar...at some point I'll come to Mass very early and take lots of pictures to share (most interesting is the Moorish and Byzantine feel going on in the church - high ceilings, stucco, slightly Islamic ornamentation) - I felt guilty snapping this one on my phone a few minutes before Mass began, but I couldn't keep this treasure under my hat any longer. More pictures - and pretentious gushing about art - to come.
St. Thomas isn't just an architectural gem, though that was what first caught my eye. Upon picking up a worship aid I was discouraged to see it full of modern music, the bland and uninspiring performance of which I am well familiar with from my church in Appleton. "What supreme irony is this," I thought bitterly, sinking into my pew and slipping off my vest (the blue one), "that such a beautiful space should be fouled with insipid and meaningless noise?" But I was soon corrected, for although the music is modern, the six-person choir, with a pianist and a recorder-player accompanying it, has more life in it than several full-sized choirs I have encountered. Furthermore, the music director very cleverly interspersed several old tunes (Lord of All Hopefulness, for example) with the new ones, using the contrast between styles to make each song - all of them well-led by the choir and well-sung by the congregation - stand out as a piece of art. I will not say that this is musical heaven - I see they have an organ they're not using - but I must now reevaluate my opinion of modern church music. Could it be that what has made it so revolting in the past has been the utter blandness of its presentation, and not an inherent flaw in the music itself? Perhaps so....
I am missing out on the most important part (for shame!): the congregation itself. St. Thomas' "catchphrase" (for lack of a better word) is "God's People in Extraordinary Variety," and they're not kidding. The congregation has no clear ethnic majority, though the biggest group is probably people of African heritage. But alongside them are many other groups: not just European-Americans, but also people of East Asian and South Asian heritage - three rows in front of me this morning was a family of (I think) Indians (as in the subcontinent), the women dressed in muted saris, and last week several African-American women were wearing turbans and full-length gowns of, I think, West African origin. What I'm trying to say is that this parish is very ethnically diverse (there are also people of just about every age, from babes in arms to blue-haired old ladies of various ethnicities), and everyone seems to get along. What gets me most is that people get out of their pews during the sign of peace and seek out others, sometimes on the other side of the church, and some simply walk the aisles giving the sign of peace to everyone they can reach. In my former parish, that's simply not done - you don't leave your pew, and you shake hands with everyone within reach. It feels forced. Not so here.
Today's second reading (James 2:14-18, quite possibly my favorite biblical passage) sums it up perfectly:
14 What shall it profit, my brethren, if a man say he hath faith, but hath not works? Shall faith be able to save him? 15 And if a brother or sister be naked, and want daily food: 16 And one of you say to them: Go in peace, be ye warmed and filled; yet give them not those things that are necessary for the body, what shall it profit? 17 So faith also, if it have not works, is dead in itself. 18 But some man will say: Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without works; and I will shew thee, by works, my faith.
In short, there's something much more alive (and also more liberal - their bulletin runs social justice articles every week) about this church than the churches I've been involved with in the past. Perhaps it's the big city dynamic - perhaps it's the ethnic diversity - perhaps it's a more tolerant atmosphere (this neighborhood is very heavily Democratic, and Illinois' 1st congressional district, of which it is a part, hasn't elected a Republican since the 1930s). But whatever it is, people, place, or politics, I like it. This is a church worth going to.
Saturday, September 12, 2009
Friday, September 11, 2009
I didn't do a whole lot of innovative cooking in my first two weeks here because I was still settling in, but now that I've got things pretty much in order, it's time to start testing my culinary wings. You can see the results of my first endeavor at the right. Because I have a ridiculous and admittedly pretentious love of fancy French names for my culinary concoctions (even if I have to make them up, as I did this one), I've named this one Poulet à l’Orient (which translates, for those readers who don't speak French, as Oriental or Eastern Chicken). Here's what I did:
I took a quarter of a mid-sized Spanish onion and stuck it in my mini food processor, and once it was finely chopped, threw in two cloves of garlic and did the same. Then I put half a cup of rice on the stove (no not directly onto the stovetop, you cheeky bugger - in a little pot with some water) and defrosted a chicken breast in the microwave. I put the onions and garlic in a frying pan and sautéed them while I cut up the chicken. Then I threw in the chicken and, on impulse, added some frozen beans (French cut). I sauteed the whole thing, then spooned it onto a bed of rice and voila, a meal. But how good was it? (Please forgive the pretension below - I'm imitating Iron Chef.)
Presentation: 4 of 5
The physical presence is adequate, good symmetry, very solid, wholesome feel. But the onion look slightly burned, which is distasteful, and the colors are somewhat dull.
How to Improve: Don't chop the onion as finely, and the pieces won't burn; it doesn't need to be cooked as long either. Consider fresh beans instead of frozen and add them later (or cook them separately and add them right at the end) for a more vibrant color.
Taste: 7 of 10
The chicken was quite tender, which is good, but lacks independent flavor beyond that of chicken, which is quite mild. The same goes for the rice. The primary flavor element here is the garlic/onion sauté, which is a bit salty and dominates the rest of the dish. It's not dominant to the point of unpleasant, but it does blot out the other elements fairly effectively. I couldn't even taste the beans, for example.
How to Improve: Less onion may reduce the salty flavor, though fewer larger pieces, as noted above, will keep them from burning, which may reduce the salty taste as well. Season the chicken before or immediately after moving it to the frying pan with something appropriate - simple black pepper, or perhaps a more Asian spice, like curry. Put something in the rice, too - a little salt, maybe a little olive oil.
Health: 4 of 5
The vegetables are, without doubt, secondary as far as nutrition is concerned, and the rice is nothing but a carbohydrate. But the chicken was a healthy choice, and none of the ingredients were mixes, artificial powders, or pre-prepared.
How to Improve: A higher ratio of vegetables to meat and carbs will make this dish healthier; consider removing the chicken and going vegetarian altogether (in fact, if you remove the chicken but keep everything else the same, this dish is actually vegan).
Ingenuity, Creativity, and Thrift: 4 of 5
It's not revolutionary, but I seldom cook Asian inspired dishes, and while I didn't intend for this to be quasi-Asian, it turned out that way and I'm not unhappy about it (hooray for broadening horizons), so it's a step in the right experimental direction. Not hugely creative either, but the sudden inspiration to throw in some beans was a good one. Thrift? Not bad - a half-cup of rice can't be worth more than 25 cents, a quarter of an onion (54 cents/lb., one 1/2lb. onion for 26 cents, and 1/4 of that makes a mere 7 cents), two lobes of a clove of garlic for probably 20 cents, a handful of frozen beans (at 99 cents/package) no more than 10 cents - the only even remotely pricey thing was the chicken breast, which probably cost a dollar. So a full meal for under two dollars - now that's nothing to be ashamed of!
How to Improve: Removing the chicken makes this dish even cheaper, but that's not imperative. Try some more revolutionary combinations of ingredients (add water chestnuts for additional Asian points, or give it a Mediterranean feel with fresh basil, chopped cherry or grape tomatoes, and some oregano). Consider ginger, curry, and chilis.
Overall: 19 of 25 (B+)
Not bad for an experiment - it can be made better, but it's a solid start. My next task is to master the oven - as gas oven with no way of telling me when it's preheated. Still, I won't go for ten months without baking cookies, not when I've got my own kitchen. Will keep you posted - stay tuned for more Culinary Adventures!
Wednesday, September 9, 2009
This is an impromptu map of the Hyde Park neighborhood I made when two friends came over and wanted to know where I was in relation to various other important locations. This is what I came up with, using common household objects and one of my guests' shoes.
The muffin tins represent Washington Park, which is the western limit of the Hyde Park neighborhood. West of the park things go downhill pretty fast - bombed-out inner city, essentially. The Pyrex baking dish to the southeast is Jackson Park, which is on the lake. The Museum of Science and Industry is located at the park's north end, and housed in one of the few remaining buildings from the 1893 Chicago World's Fair (the World's Colombian Exposition, about which Erik Larson's excellent historical novel The Devil in the White City is written). The shoe represents the University of Chicago's "Midway Plaisance," which was the midway at the World's Fair. Now it's just open green space. The University occupies space on both the north and south sides of the midway, but the majority of it is on the north side, and is represnted by the ceramic-tile trivet (the square thing in the middle of the photo).
Now, the empty salt and pepper shakers were originally supposed to represent my apartment (the left one) and the Metra stop (the right one), but upon reflection I realized that I'm not that close to the university ( I would be if you removed the four northeastern-most tiles of the trivet, though). Otherwise, the leftmost shaker could actually represent my church (which deserves a blog entry of its own) and the rightmost shaker my apartment, provided you can mentally move the rightmost shaker up (north) about an inch.
Now, the only thing that's missing is a scale. I don't know precise measurements, but I do know that from my apartment to the center of the university is a one-mile walk (not as the crow flies, but as the student walks). So although I say neighborhood, not everything is just down the street. That's true of shopping, but not of the university. And now - thanks to cookware and a good friend's shoe - you know!
Saturday, September 5, 2009
A: It depends. If you believe their propaganda, you shouldn't need any personnel at all - you can do it yourself!
Q: Is that true?
A: Maybe for wireless, but for a DSL connection - well, what does "wire, wire, pants on fire" mean to you?
Let me explain. You'll recall, two posts back, my jubilant announcement that I had finally gotten an internet connection and would post to this blog soon (which I did - incidentally,the Geranium is glad to sign autographs if you're willing to come pick them up in person). I'm afraid I oversimplified, in the hopes that the troubles I had had were temporary. Now, however, it's time for full disclosure.
Monday, 23 August - After my parents help me unload everything, get it in the apartment, and have left, I walk to the AT&T store on 53rd, just two blocks away, and set up my internet with a friendly agent (AT&T personnel #1). I get $10 off my service per month because I'm an AT&T phone customer already. Great! Everything goes fine until she tells me I won't get service until next week Monday (the 31st). You mean I have to wait a whole week for my internet? But there's no way around it, so I grind my teeth and accept it.
Friday, 28 August - After failing to deliver my modem on the first try (sometime between 12 and 3 - I was out of the building doing some grocery shopping), UPS unexpectedly tries again on the same day - around 4-ish, after I have returned, found their notice of attempted delivery slip, and ground my teeth down several centimeters in frustration. Much to my shock - I expected that I'd have to trudge to the Post Office to pick the package up in person - no hitches here. I take the modem upstairs, get the cords and such arranged. But, bear in mind, I have no service until Monday the 31st! So I look at my modem longingly for a while, and then turn on some music and clean things.
Monday, 31 August - According to the packing slip in my modem box, my service will be activated at 8pm - so yes, Monday, but only barely. I spend the day on tenterhooks, and then at 8pm plug everything in, turn it on, and receive...no signal. I unplug, replug, ascertain that everything is securely where it needs to be, restart the computer several times, pray, etc. Nothing. So I call Tech Support (AT&T personnel #2), and after an hour on the phone, we manage to determine that there's a service outage, and that's why nothing is working. So I set up my account on the phone and wait for service to be resumed, which it is, but only after an hour on the phone. Tech Support Guy expresses his relief, and promises to call me back the next day to make sure everything's OK.
Tuesday, 1 September - Tech Support Guy calls back this evening (AT&T personnel #2 again) and I confirm that the internet is indeed working. Excellent, I think - everything should be fine now. Ha.
Wednesday, 2 September - Math Camp begins today (more on that later) - and I walk home for lunch, thinking I'll read the BBC over my sandwich. But my connection is gone. OK, I think, perhaps it's just because the computer went to sleep and lost the connection - I'll restart it once I have time in the afternoon (after classes are done). So I do, and I can't get a signal. Uncertain what to do next, I call Tech Support (AT&T personnel #3), and the lady on the other end, after confirming that there is no outage, advises me to restart my modem as well as my computer. After untangling the spaghetti of cords, I do so, and the connection is restored. Excellent, just a blip, right?
Thursday, 3 September - Happy Birthday to my little sister. No internet problems today. Everything is solved, I think. Calm before the storm, Fate says to herself with a smirk.
Friday, 4 September - Half-day for Math class today, so I go home, have lunch, and decide to cruise the net a bit for entertainment. But I have no connection. So I figure I'll just do what I was told by Tech Support on Wednesday, and that should solve the problem. But it doesn't. I re-read the troubleshooting guide, restart this and that, unplug, replug, and finally give up. So I call Tech Support (AT&T personnel #4) and, after several tests (no service outage in my area), tells me that he'll send a report to the Maintenance folks, and they'll do some tests from the office. If that doesn't resolve the problem, they'll call me via their automated system and tell me. This does, in fact, come to pass, and the robot/computer on the other end explains that they may need to send someone to look at my physical hookup, but they'll call and let me know if that needs to happen.
Saturday, 5 September today) - At 8:55am, at which time I would not normally be awake, but I was today because I had someone spend the night, AT&T calls. A technician (AT&T personnel #5) is on his way and will be at my building in about a half hour to look at things. Grateful that my guest has just left, I grab a hasty breakfast, make the apartment presentable, and do some dishes. The technician arrives, and after much (two and a half hours of) investigation of the phone jack in my apartment, the central hub box in the hallway, and the box out in the alley in back, determines that the wire (circa 1950 - shown above) is faulty. He replaces it, and promises to have the central office direct my signal through a slightly different route that avoids the faulty wires he's found outside. Just wait a few hours and everything will be resolved. Bless him, he overestimated - I have internet by noon.
[Here I will insert a completely irrelevant but very interesting observation - of all the service people I've dealt with in the past week, not a single one was European-American, but rather, African-, Middle-Eastern-, and South Asian-Americans. Fascinating.]
So are my internet problems solved? I should certainly hope so. Only time will tell, and I'll keep you posted - provided, of course, that I can get a connection.
Wednesday, September 2, 2009
For those of you who aren't acquainted with my geranium, we go way back - to the beginning of my junior year as an undergrad, as a matter of fact (OK, so that's only two and a half years, but considering that most people can kill a plant - even a geranium - inside a month, I think it's pretty good). I had just returned from the relatively mild December of southern Germany into the teeth of one of the fiercest Wisconsin winters I've ever experienced. My mother, who knows that I don't really like winter, gave me a geranium for my broom-closet - I mean, dorm room - and we've been together ever since. I take care of it, and it takes care of me.
We have not always been on terribly good terms, I must admit. During spring break of my senior year I left the geranium in my dorm while I went off to Virginia and came back to find that the poor thing had been steamed to within an inch of its life. It had dropped half of its leaves, and dropped more in the week after I returned, each one crisp with reproach, as though to say "You left me, without companionship (or, more importantly, water), for more than a week, during which I pined away and dropped half my leaves, because I simply couldn't go on. And now I'm going to be fragile and sickly, and drop more leaves, to make sure you never leave me again."
What can I say? Botanical coercion works. We haven't been parted since.
The geranium is not alone in my apartment (I'll introduce you to the other plants at some later date). Unlike my other plants, however, it has resisted naming ferociously since day one, as I can't bear to call any living thing "Gerry." Another name has not been forthcoming, so mostly I just call it the geranium. Though perhaps, out of respect for its preeminent position among my plants, I should begin calling it the Geranium, capital G, instead. Thoughts?
Monday, August 31, 2009
Saturday, August 22, 2009
A: See photo.
In the culminating moment of two months-worth of thrifting, bargain-hunting, hand-me-downing and checking-things-off- lists(-ing?), now comes the moment of truth: fitting it all into the car. This photo is the (almost) end result. I say “almost” because not everything made the cut. I will not be taking a shelving unit I had hoped to, nor the TV, nor the dish-rack. I almost had to give up the shoe-rack too, until I remembered that I could take it apart and thus reduce it to a pile of boards and a handful of screws. But another reason I say “almost” is because it’s not really done. You see, somehow I have to fit several more things into that rat’s nest: my pillows, my knitting basket, my toiletries, my office supplies…dear God. I don’t know how I’m going to do it. I truly don’t. But I am – and my family is – resourceful and clever. And also able to tolerate rather uncomfortable driving conditions for periods of time. I hope.
By the way, the itinerary is this: we leave Sunday afternoon and head down to Milwaukee to spent the evening with family friends. Then on Monday we’ll make the drive down to the U of C, unload my things (breathe a sigh of relief that we’ve made it), and then my family heads back up to Milwaukee to spend the night, rather than trying to make it all the way to Appleton after unloading the contents of my apartment. Did I mention that I’ll be living on the third floor of a building with no elevator? I didn’t? Well, you can just imagine how much fun this will be. Pity you can't join us - you're really missing out.
And yes, that is a six-pack of beer in the lower right-hand corner of the photo. I have a feeling we'll be needing it.