Friday, October 28, 2011

Bread and Soup

Italian wedding soup and ciabatta bread
It's finally feeling like fall to me down here in Cincinnati. We had our first real frost this week and the scarves and sweaters and UGGs are starting to come out of the woodwork. I'm a little nervous about winter because I live in a drafty old house, but the radiators kicked on this week and I've discovered that pointing a fan at mine really does wonders for heating up the room. I'm comforted by that and the thought that the city only gets a couple of inches of snow at a time--huzzah!

But, as we're moving towards cooler weather my culinary adventures are started to tend toward winter-y foods. Like bread. And soup. Both of which you can see in the above picture. This was my second time making Italian wedding soup, and my very first time making ciabatta!

If you have ever felt intimidated by breadmaking, let me suggest this recipe from Lifehack: http://www.lifehack.org/articles/lifehack/kitchen-hack-one-minute-ciabatta-bread.html. It sounds almost too good to be true, but it works and you get tasty, tasty bread out of it. I made a mistake with mine and added 1tsp of yeast instead of 1/4 tsp so it was ready to bake in about two hours instead of eight. The resulting bread doesn't have the big airy pockets like you usually see in ciabatta, but it was extremely easy and still very delicious. Especially hot out of the oven with some butter... mmmmmm.

But of course, the bread was just one side of the equation. Soup was the other. I've been thinking about this Italian wedding soup for a while, and I finally gathered all of the ingredients. Contrary to popular belief, the soup has nothing to do with weddings; the name supposedly refers to the "marriage" of meat and vegetables. And I'm pretty sure I read somewhere that it isn't from Italy either. Oh well. Meatballs and pasta = close enough?

Here is the recipe that I use. It makes A TON of soup, so I'd suggest making a half batch like I did this week.

Ingredients:

2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup seasoned breadcrumbs
1 lb ground beef
1 lb Italian sausage (Bob Evans is good!)
3 medium carrots, sliced (I'm not a huge fan of cooked carrots so I never use this much)
3 celery ribs, diced
1 large onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2 tbsp olive oil
4 cans reduced-sodium chicken broth
2 cans beef broth (I go reduced-sodium here too)
1 10-oz package frozen spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
1/4 cup fresh minced basil or 2 tbsp dry
1 envelope onion soup mix
1 1/2 tbsp ketchup
1/2 tsp dried thyme
3 bay leaves
1 1/2 cups uncooked pasta (like macaroni or penne)

Steps:

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Combine eggs and breadcrumbs in a large bowl. Crumble beef and sausage over mixture and combine. Form into 3/4" meatballs.
  2. Place meatballs on a foil-lined cookie sheet (with sides) and bake for 15-18 minutes until no longer pink. Drain on paper towels.
  3. Meanwhile, saute carrots, celery, onion, and garlic in olive oil in a Dutch oven or soup kettle until tender. Add broth, spinach, basil, soup mix, ketchup, thyme, and bay leaves.
  4. Bring the soup to a boil and add the meatballs. Reduce heat and simmer uncovered for 30 minutes.
  5. Add the pasta and cook for 13-15 minutes longer, until tender, stirring occasionally. Discard bay leaves before serving.

Makes 10 servings or 2 1/2 quarts.

And there you have it! The perfect autumn / winter meal: bread and soup.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Grad Student "Identity"

Obviously I haven't been keeping up on this as well as I'd like. Things have been getting hectic. I've been out of town for the past two weekends and so haven't had time for much beyond schoolwork, driving, eating, and sleeping. But, it's time to take a deep breath and think a little bit.

I've been giving a lot of thought lately to my identity here in graduate school. For me, there are two sides to the equation: Graduate Student and Graduate Teaching Assistant. These are both mighty fine titles, but holding them simultaneously is sometimes difficult.

As a student, I know my job is to go to class, to study, and to keep up on my work. Easy enough, right? However, I'm in a pretty unique position within my program. I'm one of only a few grad students who started the master's program here straight out of undergrad, without any real work experience in between. That means 1.) I'm younger than almost everybody and 2.) I'm at a bit of a disadvantage by lacking those experiences in the workplace. I'm not sure what I want to do with my life or what skills I will need, so it's harder for me to plan out a course of study and know what I need to learn. On the plus side, I'm used to being in school so being a student still comes naturally to me. It's the role I'm most comfortable in.

Ok. So far, so good.

Now, the other side: GTA. I have to say, I had no idea what it took to be a teacher before I started doing this. I never realized all the planning and researching and just thinking that goes into it. Things that seem simple (writing a syllabus, grading papers) always take way more time than I think they will. Not to mention the fact that I am now a figure of authority for students who are practically the same age as me. It's a strange situation.

I tend to compare it to my experiences tutoring a lot. When I'm a tutor, I'm a peer. I'm a cheerleader for one student at a time. I get to say "Let's work together on this to make it awesome." I don't have to evaluate the work or give it a grade. Things are much less complicated.

Teaching is different. I have twenty-two students to deal with at a time (and thank goodness I don't have any more than that--I don't know how K-12 teachers keep everyone's names straight). It's hard to make sure everyone is on the same page, because inevitably, they won't be. And I'm now the one who has to say A, B, C, etc. That's a tough situation. The tutor in me always comes out when I grade; my comments are more about how to improve the text than anything else, even though I know I need to give it a letter at the end. Maybe that's not such a bad thing.

The trouble is that I don't know whether I'm more of a student or more of a teacher. It seems that the answer should be student, because ultimately I am here to get a degree. But I can only be here doing this because of the teaching assistantship, which I get to keep by maintaining a certain GPA. I need one to keep the other. And right now, I find myself splitting my time almost equally between the two. It's a strange sort of limbo, and I'm finding it very interesting to think about how my two roles interact and overlap with each other.

Ah, well. Back to the grind. In parting I offer this delicious photo of a cappucino from Taza--if you're in the UC area and you haven't been to this place, check it out for some good coffee and neat latte art.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Leaves & Wings

Autumn leaves falling,
falling,
falling,
like so many responsibilities
drifting toward me
on an October breeze,
so numerous
that I cannot catch them all.

I prefer the summertime
when the wings of opportunity
light upon and carry me
gently
as a painted butterfly.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

First Pizza of the Quarter

 
One thing you will learn if you spend much time around me is that I love food. I'm not one of those people who is adept at describing smells and tastes and hints and overtones, but I love trying new foods and trying to cook them. And while this isn't going to be a cooking blog, I do intend to post some of my recipes here periodically. So, for my first "real" blog post, I thought I'd share with you my recipe for white pizza. But before we can get to the deliciousness of the pizza, you'll need the dough. Here is the recipe that I use, but feel free to use your own or the store bought kind.

Ingredients:

1 cup warm water
1 packet active dry yeast
Pinch of sugar
2 tbsp olive oil
2 tsp salt
3-4 cups flour

Steps:
  1. Heat water to about 115 degrees Fahrenheit. I microwave it for about a minute to get it the right temperature. You should be able to stick your fingers in it and hold them there for a few seconds.
  2. Add the yeast to the water along with a large pinch of sugar and give it a stir. Let it sit for at least 5 minutes, or until it foams. I like to do this step in my mixing bowl (less cleanup later).
  3. Add the olive oil, salt, and 2 cups of flour to the yeast mixture in a mixing bowl. Stir with a wooden spoon until blended. Continue to add flour (about 1/3 to 1/2 cup at a time) until the dough isn't sticking to the bowl.
  4. Flour a work surface like a counter top or cutting board and turn the dough out onto it. Flour your hands and knead the dough for 2 or 3 minutes, adding flour as needed. Then test it by poking it gently with your thumb--if the dough bounces back, you're done with this step. Oil the mixing bowl and roll the dough around inside to coat it. Then cover it and let it sit for at least 1/2 an hour, until it has doubled in size.
  5. Punch out the air in the dough and turn it out on your work surface again. At this point, you can divide the dough into however many pieces you want. You can make about 3 medium pizzas with this recipe, or 6 personal pizzas or calzones (I used 1/3 of the dough for the pizza in the picture). Form each piece into a ball and cover with a towel. (If you want to freeze the dough, this is the time to do it.) Preheat your oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit.
  6. Working with one piece of dough at a time, roll it, stretch it, toss it, or do whatever you have to to get it into the shape you want. Coat a cookie sheet or pizza pan with nonstick cooking spray and put your dough on it.
  7. Add toppings and then pop it in the oven for about ten minutes or so. Let cool (if you can), cut, and enjoy!
  8. If you want to make calzones, add your toppings to half of a dough round. Fold the other half over top, pinch the edges or press with the tines of a fork to seal, and brush with olive oil or beaten egg before baking.
 So that's it for the pizza. Oh wait, you want to know about the one in the picture? Well, that's a whole other story...

I basically made up this version of white pizza. I wanted pizza but I had no sauce or pepperoni or other traditional toppings. But I did have some olive oil, some spices, some mozzarella, and a couple of lovely tomatoes. And the results were delicious. So, while you're waiting for your dough to rise, you can get ready to make the white pizza toppings. For one pizza:

Ingredients:

2 tbsp olive oil
2 cloves minced garlic
Spices
1 cup shredded mozzarella
1/4 cup grated Parmesan
2 tomatoes, sliced

Steps:
  1. Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a saute pan. Add the garlic and cook for about two minutes. Add your spices. I used crushed red pepper, dried basil, and an Italian seasoning blend. Cook for another minute or two. Remove from heat and set aside.
  2. When your dough is ready to go, drizzle the oil on top and spread it around with the back of a spoon.
  3. Cover the pizza with mozzarella and Parmesan. 
  4. Arrange the tomato slices on top. Top with a little more cheese and a sprinkle of basil. Bake and enjoy.
And voila! The pizza was really delicious. You can tell because I had already started eating it before I thought to take the picture! The only problem was that it didn't rise much so the crust was very thin. This could have been a problem with the yeast or just my impatience in not letting it rise as long as it needed to. Either way, it was delicious.

Pizza is one of my favorite things to cook, partly for the reason that it is so very forgiving. Yes, I would have liked a thicker crust, but it turned out pretty awesome anyway. And you can throw whatever toppings you want on it. (Seriously, it's like the best food ever.)

I also sincerely enjoy the process of making it. The mixing and the kneading and the stretching and all of that. It is cathartic. I'm at a stage in my life known as "Poor Graduate Student" where I'm supposed to eat Kraft Mac & Cheese and Ramen noodles for every meal. And although I enjoy both of those things (in moderation of course), I like being able to prepare something from scratch. I like having that connection to my food, and there's a sense of pride that comes from making it yourself. Lucky for me, I have now 4 more balls of dough in the freezer so this pizza is only the first of many.

Now, who's hungry?