Thursday, January 28, 2010

On writing and a recipe

This is more a post about being a grad student than living abroad.  As much as I would like to say that my life is more adventurous because I live in Europe, it's really kind of boring.  That is because, as my advisor never ceases to remind me, I have a dissertation to write.

For the first few years of grad school, I dreamed of the day I would finally be finished taking classes, done with preparing for exams, and even free for a little while from the responsibilities of teaching.  There was going to be this magical time in my future when I would sit in my little office in the mornings while I wrote chapter after chapter.  I was going to finish my writing and be done with my program in record time and then get some great professorship somewhere.  Yes, and also in this dream scenario in between all that productive writing, I would have time to do all this other stuff I love, like running and baking with some canning on the side, and then I would master some other equally awesome activity like becoming an expert seamstress. Well...ha ha hahahahahahahaha haha ha ha ha...ha.  I have no idea what kind of crack I was smoking, but that is not how dissertation writing happens for 99.5% of the people out there, I'm inclined to believe.  Okay, I have known maybe two incredibly disciplined and organized people, who wrote awesome dissertations and finished way ahead of schedule, but in case this post hasn't made it clear, I am not one of those people.

This first phase of writing has been really difficult, but I think getting started on any large project can be a daunting experience suck.  I thought maybe it's because I up and moved to another country, but as it so happens, my friends in California have experienced some of the same issues I have.  So apparently, the difficulties related to sitting by yourself while you attempt to write and write and write and write while keeping yourself motivated are about the same for everyone.  (If writing is really easy for you and you produce academic research at lightning speed, please do not tell me.  It would just demoralize me and break my spirit.)  But isn't that how everyone's job is?  Even if you have your dream career, isn't it just difficult sometimes to get out of bed in the morning?  I have my productive weeks and my less than productive weeks (guess which kind this is), and I'm hoping that the super-manic, incredibly fruitful weeks balance out the ones in which I would rather stare at my wall all day than write a chapter.

Cooking this year has been a wonderful therapeutic tool for those days when the writing or the attempt at writing didn't go so well; on my great writing days, it's a welcome reward for a day's work well-done.  Still, cooking and really thinking about how my food relates to my own culture as well as the one I find myself immersed in has been a great outlet.  It's also forced me on many an occasion to leave my office and go interact with the world.  There have been weeks in which I have only left the house to go for a run, and I have also realized that I have gone five days without speaking to anyone other than Niek.  I mean, I live in Amsterdam, for crying out loud!  I should celebrate the fact that I live somewhere awesome.  Grocery shopping gets me back out among the living.  I hop on my bicycle and at the very least say, "hello" to the guy behind the counter while I'm buying my carrots.  Leave it to food to force you to interact with society.

I don't want to leave you without a recipe for an easy dinner that makes me happy to serve and even happier to eat.  When Regan and James were here, I made this quick, laid-back meal for the night they returned from Belgium.  It was also the first Monday after the Holidays; Niek was back at work and I was back to writing.  After all the rich food and all the Holiday goodies I needed something that was simple, warm and comforting.  I've made these tarts with different combinations of vegetables and various soft cheeses for the mixture, so adapt it to your tastes and the season.
The Belgian Waffle and the fresh mint tea are optional.

  Potato Leek Soup with Simple Mushroom and Bell Pepper Tarts:

Rustic Potato-Leek Soup
adapted from The New Best Recipes
3-4 leeks (mine were fairly large and thick)
a few tablespoons of olive oil (enough to coat the bottom of your pan)
1 Tbsp. flour
5 c. chicken broth
1 bay leaf
1 3/4 lbs. red potatoes (about 5 medium), cut into 3/4-inch dice (I leave the skins on for texture and flavor)

1. Cut off the roots and tough dark green portion of the leeks and discard.  Slice the leaks in half lengthwise and chop into 1/2 inch pieces.
2. Heat the oil in a large stockpot or Dutch oven over medium-low heat.  Stir in the leeks, increase the heat to medium, cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the leeks are tender but not mushy, 15 minutes; do not brown the leeks.  Sprinkle the flour over the leeks and stir to coat evenly.  Cook until the flour dissolves, about 1-2 minutes.
3.  Increase the heat to high; whisking constatnly, gradually add the broth.  Add the bay leaf and potatoes, cover, and bring to a boil.  Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, covered until the potatoes are almost tender, 5-7 minutes.  Remove the pot from the heat and let stand, covered, until the potatoes are tender and the flavors meld (10-15 minutes).
4.  Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve immediately.

Mushroom and Bell Pepper Tarts
adapted from Simple Leek and Ricotta Tarts at, October 2007

1/4-1/2 lb. chèvre, a.k.a. goat's milk cheese, softened (This weight is approximate.  I usually just pick out the package I am pretty sure will be enough for four people.)
1/4 c. grated Parmesan cheese
1 egg
8 pre-cut squares of puff pastry
1/4 lb. mushrooms, thinly sliced (I usually choose button mushrooms because of availability and price)
1 large red bell pepper, thinly sliced
2 tsp. fresh thyme leaves (dried are also fine, but you will probably need less)

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (355°F).
2. Meanwhile, place the chèvre, parmesan and eggs in a bowl and whisk until smooth. Add in the thyme and grind a bit of pepper into the mixture.
3. Place four puff pastry squares on a cookie sheet.  Spread the cheese mixture over the pastry squares leaving a 2 cm (3/4 inch) border. Place some mushrooms and bell pepper on top.  Layer each tart with another puff pastry square and repeat the process with cheese mixture, mushrooms and bell pepper.
5.  Bake for 25–30 minutes and serve.

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