Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Me And My Meal Plan: A Photo Essay

I live in a university dorm as faculty-in-residence, and the position comes with a meal plan. I probably eat four meals a week in the cafeteria, and usually the food is just okay, perfectly fine. But last week, I had these green beans and they were amazing, generously seasoned and slightly crisp, not bland, rubbery and overcooked as they tend to be. I had seconds. I had thirds. I finally approached one of the cafeteria workers and expressed my admiration. Turns out, he was the guy who made the beans. "Butter," he said. "Butter, lots of garlic, salt, and fresh basil." Fresh basil. Damn, Northwestern.
This mostly vegan meal resembled something I'd cook myself; collard greens, rice with lentils, and hush puppies. I am not vegan; I eat a plant-based diet that includes a little dairy, the occasional egg, fish once in a while. I thought it would be hard to find enough to eat in the dorm, but it is usually surprisingly easy. Industrial food has changed since I was first in college.
Although here was a dinner that could have come straight out of 1986. Remember all those baked potatoes we used to eat? The idea to add the tuna came from my years of living in England. They will put anything on a baked potato over there (they call them "jacket potatoes"), and as it turns out pretty much anything tastes good on one.
Some things are just not for me. I don't at all get why students freak out over and line up for something called the "hot cookie bar." A tray of hot, gooey, undercooked cookies. That's it. But I do love that the students leap from their seats when this comes out every Friday. I'm surprised by how much I enjoy this aspect of communal living, the group rituals and rhythms of the week. I have always considered myself a very private person, but it is fun to inhabit a bigger and more social world. I never lived in a dorm when I was in college, so it's interesting to have this experience as a middle-aged woman.
One thing we can all agree on is this: Sriracha is absolutely essential. I have always been a fan: now I'm an addict. Forever after, when I am squirting Sriracha all over my stir fry, my roasted potatoes, my omelette, my tomato soup (try it!), I will remember these weird and wonderful years.

No groceries to buy on the way home. No exhausted and uninspired weeknight vegetable chopping. No dishes to wash. What do I care if I end up eating some strange dinners once in a while? The meal plan has brought gender equality to my family - I am writing more, playing music, I even go out to see shows once in a while, maybe because I'm not exhausted from my second shift. It's a big adjustment for me, and a bit of a conundrum - I love food, I love to cook, I am a huge proponent of home cooking, but I have got to admit: my life is better with a meal plan.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Taste of a Place: Lemon Mint Drink

I spent an amazing week in the Middle East over spring break, as a trip advisor for a group of Northwestern students visiting our campus in Qatar. I've been back for two weeks now, my jet-lag is finally gone, my camel photos have made the rounds, and all that remains is to reconcile my intense craving for an addictive drink I had in Qatar, a local specialty called lemon mint drink.

I've experienced this kind of thing before, especially back in the day when I was routinely traipsing around the country as a rock drummer. The first tamale I ever had in my life was in New Mexico, from a stand by the side of some highway, and it blew my mind. I got home to Indiana suffering from terrible cravings, and there was no place to go to satisfy them, no way I was going to try to make tamales myself, nothing to do but live with the longing. My list of foods to pine for grew over the years - burritos in San Francisco, fish tacos in Southern California, the impossibly good whole wheat biscuits at the Bluebird Cafe in Athens, pizza in New York (sorry, Chicago).

Add to that list now this pretty, refreshing Middle Eastern drink, basically a strong sweet lemonade flavored and colored with a lot of fresh mint, the perfect thing after a day in the sun. I thought this might be a craving I could satisfy at home, and after a couple of attempts I think I came very very close. I closed my eyes, took a deep sip, and was almost back in the (camel) saddle again.

Bookmark this one for when all the gardens are exploding with mint. And I think a shot of vodka or gin added to the mix might possibly make this the perfect summer cocktail.

Lemon Mint Drink
serves 4

1 cup hot water
5 tablespoons sugar
Juice of 5 lemons
1.5 ounces mint leaves, rinsed and dried. No stems.
3 cups water
1-2 cups ice

Combine sugar and hot water and stir until sugar is dissolved. Pour into blender.

Add lemon juice, mint leaves, water and ice, and blend blend blend.

Press through a strainer and pour over ice.

(You can skip the straining, but the texture won't be quite as nice).

(I know this is a basically immoral amount of sugar - I am going to work on a version with agave, coming soon!)

Nothing hits the spot (after a camel ride by the Persian Gulf) like a glass of lemon mint drink.