Saturday, August 20, 2011

Joy, for no reason whatsoever

I have come to the conclusion that Saturday mornings are best begun by rising with the sun and setting out to the farmer's market at 6:30 am while the choice produce is still there and the cute guy at the corn stand is feeling flirty. Even on only a few hours of sleep, this weekly ritual kindles a spark in my spirit and lights a fire under my feet, and by the time I shove my 17 pounds of veggies in the fridge (careful not to abut it to the resident dog's diet of raw meat and chicken livers in yogurt containers and giant cellophane tubes), I'm itching for a good run.
Feeling elated for no reason at all (which is the best reason to be in such a state) and with perfectly cool early morning weather, I smiled the entire way around Como Lake. I smiled at almost every person I passed, even though it came out more like a grimace during the last half mile and my face was a curious shade of purple resembling the heirloom tomatoes I bought earlier. And you know what? People smiled back. Which made me smile more. Then people started to avert their eyes because I looked somewhat manic, especially as I struggled resist the urge to throw my arms out to the side and spin in circles for the sheer joy of it.
Today is wonderful. Today is beautiful. Today is full of joy for no reason whatsoever. Or it could be that my eggplant French toast is looking like it will succeed against all odds, but let's go with the former; it sounds more inspirational.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The perks of being an obscure parker

My friend Andrew once deemed me an "obscure parker" after I chose an out-of-the-way parking spot in the lot of a Chinese restaurant. A dirth of parking skills accompanies my absence of navigational sense, so I naturally (and often by necessity) choose spaces far away from other vehicles and foot traffic (so fewer people will witness my car being as crooked as a Congressman). Since I couldn't parallel park or even back into a space if the life of my first-born was at stake (the plot of Nicholas Cage's next movie, by the way), I often find myself driving further and further away from my destination in search of a suitable and safe haven for my vehicle.
Most people will circle their target location like vultures around carrion, waiting and watching for a space as close as possible. Why? So they don't have to walk another few hundred feet? I'll let you in on a secret: the unexpected things you discover walking from obscure parking spots are often better than the destination.
Today being my twenty-second birthday, I decided to finally do some touristy St. Paul sight-seeing. Going to the Como Zoo and Conservatory during school break, when summer camps and family day trips are in full swing, was a poor life decision. However, the lack of a single parking space within almost a mile proved to be the most providential happening of the day. After chancing to discover a remote and thoroughly obscure little parking lot (belonging to the streetcar museum, of all places), I ambled through almost a mile of wide, empty green fields (the soccer camp kids had yet to arrive at that point), and along paths shaded by trees with graceful arching branches and lined by park benches, soaking in the sights and the sun. Under a stone bridge overpass, I found a message that seemed to be from the world to me.
Since I know you don't want to hear about the incredible felafel and hummus (if you're in St. Paul, Black Sea is a must for good Turkish food), salted caramel ice cream from Izzy's, or peanut butter pie I made with stale chickpeas and a barely solid banana, I'll leave you with scenes from my more photogenic birthday endeavors.

Ok, so this wasn't from today. A view of St. Paul from the steps of the cathedral

The conservatory

Yes, you may use this as your new desktop image

This puffin was giving me major side-eye.

A 300 year old tree? It must be enormous!

Under 2 feet tall. Well, that's disappointing. I don't feel so bad about what I've accomplished in 22 years now.

Ferns displayed like hunting trophies. They even kind of looked like moose.

Another sight on my walk back to my car

And yet one more benefit of obscure parking

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Imminent Disaster

A big, life-altering mistake is in my future. It must be. It has to be. With all the important big-girl decisions I'm making and options presented to me and more to come in the following months, the odds are in favor of at least one catastrophe. With this ominous storm cloud of foreboding looming above my head, every choice I encounter, every minute fork in the road of daily life, begs the question: is this it? Is this the disaster that has grown tired of waiting to happen? As a result, my waffling over even the most trifling matters (I have been known to stand in the salad dressing aisle of the supermarket for well over twenty minutes at a time, picking up and putting back the same bottle more times than the kid in the cereal aisle is told by his mother to take the Lucky Charms out of the cart and NO you cannot get another bag of cookies) has escalated to unbearable levels. I'm so waffle-y that I might as well bathe in maple syrup (a tasty, yet rather messy proposition) or open a breakfast joint (or maybe just squeeze myself in a hot iron).

Utterly paralyzed by my inability to settle on a final verdict on anything and everything these days, I'm left wondering: is whatever dire or not-so-dire consequence that may arise from a wrong choice as deleterious to my wellbeing as the anxiety of trying to prevent it? Maybe I should just let go, trust my instincts, and listen to the quiet little voice inside of me. Problem is, these days even my inner voice seems to change its mind from one moment to the next. So the question remains: is this a crisis of identity, not knowing how exactly I want to shape my life and myself by the choices I make (or refuse to make for fear of a wrong turn leading down a back alley to a dumpster full of doom) or a crisis of confidence, an inability to trust myself, that I know what I should do and what I want and what is ultimately best?

In other news, my existential crisis has lead to a flourishing of culinary creativity. It seems vegetables and seasonings are the only mediums with which I feel free to let my instincts take over work these days, rather than with blood and serum, patient numbers and test codes, life choices and salad dressing selections.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Vegetable Matters

The Food Network has announced the newest addition to its fall lineup, a sitcom about a mixed family whose members (anthropomorphic foodstuffs) seem to have no common ground and opposite tastes, but who, when the heat is on, come together in quirky, unlikely harmony. Working title: Vegetable Matters.

The pilot episode would be something like last night's dinner, wherein a pantry full of a diversity of vegetables tiptoeing across the line of fitness for human consumption was the only food left at the end of the week. The central conflict: chuck the half-moldy ears of corn, soft potatoes, age-spotted cauliflower, shriveled squash, and the dregs of a carton of vegetable broth and order pizza from the rather dubious-looking shack down the road or find some way to make these disparate characters sort out their flavor profile differences and cooperate in order to happily cohabitate (in my stomach). Plot development would proceed as follows with my recipe brainstorming: well, I could make - no, that would never work. Instead, I might - no, it's too old and would taste terrible. Possibly ... no, I don't have any of other ingredients I need. The resolution: soup. The sad state of the vegetables and completely clashing possibilities of their favor profiles left me with only one option, and that was to chop it all up, put it in a pot, boil the crap out of it, and hope for the best. The plot twist: using roasted and pureed cauliflower as a thickening agent (I honestly almost laughed in utter amazement and disbelief when this worked). In the end, the members of this family stew came together and resolved their differences, much to my tummy's delight (it won't be so delighted in a few weeks when I'm still eating the leftovers; there was literally over five pounds of this soup, which is now housed in several quart-sized yogurt containers in the freezer).

In tonight's dinner, the role of Urkel was played by some lovely little eggplants that caught my wandering eye at the farmer's market. They were the sole reason for this dish and the undeniable star, just as we all know that Urkel was the only reason anyone watched Family Matters. Awkward to work with and comical in appearance, I could well imagine my long, skinny, curved Italian eggplants in miniature pairs of suspenders and thick-rimmed glasses. What I could not imagine was what to do with them. In my encyclopedia of bookmarked recipes (more like a graveyard these days, where countless I'll-try-this-later's go to die), I stumbled upon the seed of what would grow into my very eclectic supper: linguine with creamy roasted eggplant sauce. A quick look at the ingredients told me I was missing everything except eggplant and garlic. No matter, because everything is possible with a fridge full of veggies (fresh from the farmer's market today). What did I end up with after some creative finagling and substitutions of which Better Homes and Gardens would never approve? Summer squash ribbons with caramelized sweet onion in a roasted eggplant garlic cream sauce. Oh, and it was Asian-flavored. Don't quite know how that happened. As I sat devouring my concoction (which was quite uniquely delicious, with a marked emphasis on unique), I wondered what significance I could attach to this or how I could relate it to my current life experiences to present it to you. Then I realized that it was just a bowl of squash noodles, nothing more, nothing less. Delicious, nutritious, but no significance.

So there you have it, an account of my supper instead of an update on my new life's progress or reflections on personal identity. Because let's face it, life isn't a sitcom (even if my food is), and not every day ends with a group hug, collective "aww" from a studio audience, and a life lesson. Most of the time, it's just filled with vegetable matter.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Leftovers and life lessons

People today exhibit an unfortunate tendency (due, in large part, to Lifetime movies and poorly-written fiction) to find life lessons in experiences that really teach us nothing, or worse, the wrong things. Even I find myself stretching my creative limits to find ways to attach significance to daily events. Not every story has a moral. Today's dinner was one such story.
When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. When life gives you bland, unappealing leftover cauliflower (Greek-style tomato braised scented with cinnamon, in theory at least), make ... hummus? That's right; this plate of food so perplexed me as to what could possibly be done to transform it that I employed the only method that can be applied in nearly any problematic foods: pulverize the hell out of it with the food processor, whisper a quick prayer, and see what happens. Had my evening been broadcast on the Hallmark network, with the role of Megan played by Lindsay Lohan (it's the only work she can get these days) and the cauliflower by Robert Pattinson (because they have about the same amount of personality), the poignant summarizing voice-over at the end would have gone something like this: "I realized that, with a little creativity and a lot of perseverance, if I truly believe in my abilities, I can fix anything. I started out with nothing - a giant bowlful of mostly tasteless cauliflower. I followed my instincts without second guessing myself and, after trying the food processor, then cottage cheese, then oregano, and finally chickpeas, I accomplished something wonderful: cauliflower hummus. I believed in myself and everything turned out better than I could have hoped for! That's how you should approach all difficulties in life: with a mind open to all possibilities and confidence that your instincts will guide you to success."
Now, if we took this little life lesson to heart, we'd not only be incredibly puerile and naive, but royally screwed. Your gut instincts to throw this-and-that at a problem in the blind hope that it may turn out may not be so risky when vegetables are all that's at stake, but I'm not willing to risk anything more significant than what would otherwise be fodder for the compost heap; I've learned too many other life lessons from times this approach has failed spectacularly (cashew-cheese sauce, I'm lookin' at you). The danger of the Disney movie moral-of-the-story approach to learning little life lessons from  inspirational experiences is that the outcome most often is a fluke. The vast majority of the time, believing in oneself uncritically and acting on instinct instead of careful thought yields catastrophic (and occasionally hilarious) results. Never forget that most tales, if true, are cautionary rather than uplifting.
So whence should our life lessons come? Consider more serious situations, where more complex variables and more important outcomes ride on your choices. For example, if I did not utterly lack a single modicum of self-confidence and continually deride all my efforts, I would not compulsively second-guess myself and triple-check every letter and number of every reagent and patient sample upon which I lay my incapable hand at work. Just today, believing in myself and having warm fuzzy feelings would have meant a serious malfunction in an analyzer that cost more than Maria Shriver's alimony payments (you know she's going for the jugular in the settlement) and a test being run on the wrong animal (which, knowing my luck, would have mixed up the results from a healthy young puppy and a geriatric cat who was hit by a truck hauling leaky barrels of toxic waste, causing the shocked owners to put poor, sweet baby Sprinkles out of her misery before she started suffering as badly as her blood results showed she would soon be and Crusty the cat going home to die in agony, but not before biting several technicians and his owner - because he's a bastard like that). Luckily for Sprinkles, I always assume I've made a hideous error that will cause the world to come crashing down on my incompetent head, so I catch them when it's only sprinkling doom instead of raining down. So, what did I learn today? Which experience will stick with me and guide my future decisions? I ask you, which seems more realistic? The lesson for today surely is to doubt the quality of your work, constantly berate yourself for your mistakes, and compulsively check to ensure you don't make any more. Because let's face it, tonight was an anomaly; 99 times out of 100, cauliflower hummus just will not end well.