pictures

maple butternut bean salad [+ college]

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If by some miracle you are still out there and reading this, you’ll have probably noticed my absence during the past several months. The explanation is quite simple: college. Yes, my dear people, it is true. I just completed my first semester of college. And now that I can gaze back on it from the heavenly euphoria that is winter break, it is easy to say that I quite enjoyed it.

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In comparison with departing for Peru, heading off to college was a breeze. Instead of cramming the material objects that make life and my room my life and my room into a single, albeit enormous, suitcase, I packed three generous boxes full of clothing and books and folders and granola and such and piled them into the back of the van. Forget saying goodbye for three months; I could go home nearly every weekend if someone came and fetched me or if I hopped on a Greyhound. I could text and call and skype to my heart’s content. I could look forward to having a schedule of classes again. It was easy.

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And it felt so right. It’s funny. It happened before, when I graduated from high school. That was one of those landmark points that I had looked forward to all my life – anticipated, thought about, but never expected ever to arrive at just because it seemed so far off. Then I graduated, and it was the most natural thing in the world. Same with going to college. Being right where I should be right now, and most days it feels so right.

First Lady Michelle Obama!

First Lady Michelle Obama!

It is a bit strange on occasion  though. I’m a sophomore masquerading as a freshman, or at least that’s how I feel. Sometimes it’s laughable to think that my peers in the lowest strata of the student hierarchy are just out of high school, and that this time last year they had just finished grinding out essays for college applications and were looking ahead to senior proms and projects. I was just back from Peru. High school seems so long ago now.

A good day.

A good day.

Then again, it doesn’t feel so distant when I’m back home and cooking. One of the great tragedies of living at school – no, I mean the very worst part – is not being able to cook. Sure, theoretically I could store tiny quantities of basic ingredients in my half of my 12×18 dorm room and then tote everything to the third floor to cook in the grimy kitchen between classes and meetings. But, that is nothing short of absurdly unrealistic. Therefore, I eat lunch and dinner in the dining halls. Breakfast is homemade granola that I brought to school – more information and recipes about that in a later post.

A normal day.

A normal day.

Really, I have found meals in the dining halls to be not nearly as horrendous as I imagined. There’s always a well-stocked salad bar, fresh fruit, and some vegetarian options available amongst the deep-fried, white-flour-filled, and artificial other options. They even installed a fresh peanut butter grinding machine in each dining hall a few weeks after school started. What I most object to in the dining halls is the oil that seems to invade every dish. I am convinced that the sole task of some poor dining services employee is to ensure that every dish, whether animal, vegetable, or otherwise, does not leave the kitchen a sheen of oil coating all of its components. Alas.

But, hey. I am home now and back to cooking. And let me tell you: it is marvelous! You’re going to be inundated with recipes, guys. Watch out. Of course, the recipe of this post is way back from fall break.

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You can still find butternut squash in the grocery store at this time of the year, right? Of course right. I just bought some yesterday. Correction: Dad kindly picked some up for me.

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In my mind butternut squash is a year-round vegetable. It’s perfectly appropriate for eating in every season, but most especially in the colder ones.

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Butternut squash tastes good in lasagna, as fries, in bread, and in salads like this. It takes well to herbs and works in both sweet and savory dishes. Such stupendous versatility!

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Maple Butternut Bean Salad with Feta and Rosemary

Ingredients:

  • 1 medium butternut squash
  • 4 tablespoons maple syrup, divided
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary, divided
  • 1 can white beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1/4 cup feta cheese crumbles

Preheat your oven to 400°F.

Peel the squash and slice it into half-inch cubes. Toss them with the olive oil, 2 tablespoons of maple syrup, and 1 tablespoon of rosemary. Spread them evenly on a baking sheet, and roast for about 20 minutes, until the squash is soft.

Once the squash is baked, gently combine it with the white beans and feta. Add the remainder of the maple syrup and rosemary to taste. Enjoy!

the whole wheat flours study

Soon after I was forced to took up cooking I switched entirely to baking and cooking with whole wheat flours. The path to this jump, not a difficult one for me, was smoothly paved by Mother throughout my young childhood: all the peanut butter and jelly and grilled cheese sandwiches of my life have been constructed strictly out of whole grain bread. I choked down the crusts, too. Mom said it would make my hair curly. More convincingly, she mandated I finish them before being excused. Regardless, I must have eaten too many.

Already used to the slightly more dense consistency and fuller flavor of whole wheat bread and rice, I baked a couple loaves of bread with half whole wheat and half white flour. That seemed half-hearted and noncommittal of me. I brushed off the cautioning recipe notes about complete whole wheat substitution and swapped out our Unbleached Gold Medal for King Arthur. Cookies call for white flour? Pfft. Whole wheat. Muffins? Whole wheatified. Homemade pasta? Hand me the wheat berries; I’ll grind them myself.

Little time passed before I noticed that groceries offered two types of whole wheat flour: red whole wheat and white whole wheat. Later I came across a third, much less prominent type, whole wheat pastry flour, though in reality it is merely a subcategory  of white whole wheat flour.

 

Once I finished reading In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan, subsequently entirely swore off store-bought baked goods, and began baking bread weekly or twice weekly, I discovered another twist. Red whole wheat flour and white whole wheat flour do not act the same. Red is a stolid character that cooperates willingly and gets along well with everyone, despite sometimes being discriminated against at first for its coloring; red maintains authentic friendships everywhere. White looks more like a bright white star but really is a shallow impostor with a fickle mood that rises and falls without warning; sometimes, though, it surprises its acquaintances with true talent. These opposing personalities manifested themselves in this way: after carefully following the steps of two recipes of my favorite bread – one with white whole wheat and one with red whole wheat flour – the white wheat dough would be significantly stickier than the red but would also rise higher and then sink lower than the red and end up much lighter in color and somehow less appealing in taste. Two utterly different loaves of bread. Such divergent results from two flours lead me to wonder which I should preference in baking. I frequently combined the two. I had no idea what to do with the fine-ground, white whole wheat pastry flour.

 

So, just before our Europe 2012 trip, and about a year after my first experiments with whole wheat flours, I finally conducted a study to determine the best whole wheat flour. It was thorough. It was highly scientific. It was blind. It was The Great Whole Wheat Flours Study. And it included a grand total of eight participants. Nevertheless, it was conclusive.

 

I made three half-batches of buttermilk biscuits for a total of 18 biscuits – six each of red whole wheat flour, white whole wheat flour, and whole wheat pastry flour. Even though the recipe called for half white flour, I used all whole wheat. I baked the biscuits just before our Wednesday evening prayer meeting at the beach so I could carefully ensconce them in cloth napkins, enclose them in tupperware, and bring them along still warm. At the beach I required willing participants to close their eyes as I handed them bite-sized samples of each of the biscuits in random order. I asked they determine their favorite based on flavor and texture and then provide some additional comments. I scrawled the results on an increasingly salty and crumpled piece of notebook paper.

 

Participant Number

 

Biscuit Preference

 

Comments

Participant 1

Anna

red whole wheat

Pastry and white flour biscuits taste a bit bitter.

Participant 2

Emily

whole wheat pastry

White and pastry flour biscuits have the finest texture; red is sweetest.

Participant 3

Mr. B

white whole wheat

Red flour biscuit has most flavor; white flour biscuit has finest texture.

Participant 4

Mrs. L

white whole wheat

Red flour biscuit tastes the most wheaty.

Participant 5

Mrs. M

white whole wheat

Order of preference: white, pastry, red.

Participant 6

Claire

white whole wheat

 

Order of preference: white, red, pastry. Pastry flour biscuit has bitter aftertaste.

Participant 7

Hannah

red whole wheat

Pastry flour biscuit is the most crumbly and least favorite.

Participant 8

Mallory

whole wheat pastry

Pastry flour biscuit is sweet and flakey. Close call between pastry and white.

After I and the seven other participants had tested the biscuits, we snarfed down most of the remaining fragments. People liked them. The winner was clear: white whole wheat. Fifty percent of participants named it as their favorite. Red and pastry flour split the other four votes evenly, though the general consensus was that the whole wheat pastry flour biscuits had neither good texture nor taste. I think the study was a success.

Based on the results of The Whole Wheat Flours Study, in the future I shall favor white whole wheat flour in my baking.

Roman fruit and vegetable market + the end

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Okay, guys, this is the last of our Europe 2012 trip. It sure was fantastic! What better way to spend a week in Rome than to do it celebrating Grandma and Grandpa L’s 50th wedding anniversary! Congratulations, you two!

[Please note: the following accounts are a bit out of chronological order. Deal with it.]

During our last two days in Rome I did some serious clothes shopping. July and February are huge sale months in Rome, apparently. Happily for me, the main street just a block and a piazza away from our apartment overflowed with name-brand shops, most of with which I was unfamiliar, all with “SALDI! SALDI!” plastered across their display windows full of bright summer clothing. Even Gap, the only name I recognized, offered massive sales; they had a racks of clothing for €4 – I’ve never seen prices that low in Gap in the US! Even better than the prices was the clothing itself! While American stores seem to sell clothing tailored to fit inanimate mannequins or shapeless super models, the stores in Rome abounded with clothing that fit! And was comfortable! It was a glorious miracle!

Grandma and Grandpa, Mom and Dad, Aunt Marylu, and I also visited Campo di Fiori, a fresh food market within walking or busing distance from our apartment. Fruit and vegetable markets are one of my favorite parts of international travel. Even though farmers’ markets are slowly popping up here and there at home, nothing beats the well-established tradition of a foreign food market for gorgeous produce flawlessly displayed in beautiful mounds of every imaginable color. I can wander them contentedly  for hours.

Our final museum of the trip wasn’t really a museum at all, at least not in the way that the other ones were with their troves of ancient art treasures. This one displayed some of the hundreds of inventions of Leonardo Da Vinci in working form. Visitors were allowed to touch and manipulate many pieces, most of which were mechanisms for changing one type of motion, say vertical, to another type of motion, perhaps horizontal. Also included were some diving and scuba diving suits. These were all items he never actually made, mind you, so nothing I touched had ever been formed by the hands of Da Vinci himself. Besides the kinesthetic pieces, the museum included a fascinating video display explaining the meaning behind Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man – how its proportions related to the golden ratio and so on. Unlike the short film about Da Vinci’s life, the display was soundless with English subtitles. I didn’t bother with the film’s all-Italian-and-cheesy-acting-and-no-subtitles approach.

The morning of our departure – the morning after a delightful last supper of crispy, thin-crust Italian pizza – our family and the grandparents actually did not have to wake up excessively early, especially compared to everyone else who rose at 3:30am for their 7am flights. Still, at Dad’s insistence we arrived at the airport three hours before our 11:45 flight, and as much as I dislike saying it, particularly when it comes to airport timing, it’s a good thing we did. Dad was right. The line just to enter the ticketing area took forever. Check-in wasn’t too bad, but security was very long. By the time we snagged a speedy breakfast and found our gate, our flight had begun boarding. Perfect timing! And we were only 45 minutes delayed leaving. Excellent end to an excellent trip.

better than Pompeii: Ostia Antica

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I told you earlier:

Herculaneum > Pompeii

Well, you should know something else:

Ostia Antica > Pompeii

The ruins of the pre-Roman port of Ostia Antica are a very reachable 30-minute metro and train trip outside of Rome towards the Mediterranean. Once at the train station, it’s just a brief 10 or so minute walk to the gate at the edge of the ruins. Pay your entry fee and amble on in; there are no crowds to shuffle behind or lines to wait in.

Though I am not sure of its actual size, Ostia Antica felt as large as the ruins of Pompeii, if not larger. Regardless, it is quite evident that the entirety of the ruins have not yet been fully excavated, judging from the walls poking up from the forest floor beyond the already exhumed buildings. Starting at the ruins of graves and mausoleums outside of the town proper, the buildings only grown in size and level of preservation. The impressiveness of the preservation of the structures of Ostia Antica is what makes it better than Pompeii. Just as in Herculaneum, it is easy to imagine Ostia Antica as a throbbing, active port town. No need for verbal or pictorial reconstructions of most buildings; just look at them to know what function they served.

Ostia Antica’s only drawback in comparison to Pompeii is its lack of decorative flair. Its mosaics, incredibly expansive, beautiful, and accurate though they may be, are in black and white as opposed to brilliant color in Pompeii. Its buildings do not display as much marble, ornamental or otherwise, as Pompeii’s toppled temples and tumbled villas. Perhaps it’s just my impression, but I suspect Ostia Antica was not as wealthy as Pompeii. Plus, it is older, so what carved stone and color tile used to exist may have disappeared more completely than in Pompeii, with its sudden burial.

However, aesthetic quibbles aside, Ostia Antica’s mosaics, underground tunnels, towering amphitheater, and endlessly interconnected houses are excellent fun, especially since very few areas are roped off. I explored every corner and turn of nearly every building with which I came in contact for the first two and a half hours I we were inside the ruins. Of course, I never finished seeing everything. To do that you would need a good five or six hours, I think. As it was, our 4 hours or so in the ruins felt sufficient. I enjoyed it.

Go to Ostia Antica, people.

 

the glory days: the Colosseum and Roman Forum

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[Well, guys, I’m behind. I have eight or so posts in the works. Descriptions are going to be short and to the point.]

Despite being gradually dismembered by earthquakes and Romans looking for disused stone for their own construction projects, the Colosseum remains quite an impressive structure. The thing is huge. It certainly was a good investment, though. What with five hundred or so years of gruesome entertainment, a stint as a church and another as housing for squatters, and finally as a wildly popular tourist destination now and for hundreds of years to come, surely, the building has amassed as much use as could ever be expected from any construction.

It’s admittedly difficult to imagine what Rome must have been like judging from the Roman Forum. A column sticks up here to mark a massive temple; a crumbling wall stands there reminding people that dozens of shops once inhabited the area; a piece marble, a bit of travertine, some piles of bricks – the rest is left up to the imagination and the descriptions of guidebooks. Nevertheless, it is clear that for centuries ancient historical events piled themselves on top of even more ancient history in mad succession, until Rome finally fell and plunged its soaring architecture into centuries of disuse, disrepair, and, finally, destruction and burial by the elements.

So much history is bound up in the Colosseum and Roman Forum and the area surrounding the two. It’s incredible. I love ancient history. American history is so boring and brief. Even paving stones and water fountains in Rome are older than the United States.

 

 

catacombs, bones, and lots of travertine

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First whole day in Rome:

  • We visited some empty catacombs off the ancient Roman road, the Appian Way. They were empty due to destructive looting by invading barbarians many hundreds of years ago. Bones were re-buried in mass graves later, though still hundreds of years ago. Our 30-minute tour barely touched the 20 kilometers and four levels of passages. No pictures were allowed below ground.
  • Due to a slight misdirection on our bus ride home from the catacombs, we accidentally came upon the Pope’s Cathedral, the church of which the pope is actually bishop. More proper name: Papal Archbasilica of St. John Lateran.
  • After lunch I unwittingly joined an excursion to a horrifying crypt of several rooms of human bones arranged in “artistic” patterns – the Capuchin Crypt. Google for pictures. Centuries ago some disturbed monk, observant of the available skeletons of some three or four thousand dead and buried monks, requested permission to turn their remains into art. The higher-ups let him. The skeletal remain, which had been peacefully resting, were dismembered and tacked up, piled, and wired together in chains, small chandeliers, looping swirls, and symmetrical piles of identical bones. It is passed off as a sober contemplation of death. Nope. I don’t buy it. It was and is horrible, disrespectful, and gross.
  • We had pizza – ordered and fetched by the boys from a cafe down the road – and salad for supper. Italian food is wonderful.

 

Other information:

  • Mel Gibson once stayed in the apartment in which we reside here in Rome.
  • Travertine, a type of whiteish limestone, is absolutely everywhere in Rome. It’s a bit of a shame, as its natural pores and crevices fill with grime, producing a perpetually dirty appearance.  However, I’m sure it must have been readily available, and it seems to have held up reasonably well through the centuries.

water and sunshine on the Amalfi Coast

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We took a day off the day after we visited Pompeii and Herculaneum, Friday. I mostly blogged, hung around the house, cooked part of lunch, and generally did nothing in particular. It was great to relax after ceaseless daily activities since arriving in Europe.

Our day of rest did not extend to the next morning however. We were packed up and in the car on our way out of Sorrento by 8:20, though we could have been ready earlier had the hotel office been open for checkout. Mom scheduled a boating, swimming, and snorkeling excursion in the Mediterranean along the Amalfi Coast, starting in Positano.

The sun beat down on the black sand and pebble beach as we waited for our little rubber boat to arrive. When it arrived our driver helped us on and grabbed the stack of towels thrown at him by another employee of the tour company. For the next three hours we boated between calm coves and cool grottos, snorkeling and swimming as we pleased. Eventually we boated far enough down to see Amalfi itself from the boat. We enjoyed the  glistening, perfectly clear and impossibly blue water and quaint towns with their staircases down the cliffs to the water.

After an unsatisfactory rinse-off in some outdoor showers across feet-burning sand, we drove straight to the airport in Rome to drop off our rental car. From there we took a taxi to our apartment in Rome, where everyone else had already assembled.

And the week in Rome began.