The Wife of the Wandering Scholar, Day 1

Some career advice from my husband: if you’re considering going for a Ph.D. in the humanities, and you have even the slightest reservation that the program is for you, then the program is not for you. You need to be 110% committed in order to survive. You’re going to be constantly overworked, given a stipend that won’t support you (if you’re lucky enough to get a stipend at all), apply for summer language study grants that won’t work out because of silly institutional policies, your confidence in yourself and your academic abilities is going to be utterly crushed, orals is going to be several months of sheer 250-book torture that will alienate you from your family and friends and screw up whatever semblance of a sleep schedule you had, and then immediately afterwards, when classes and orals are over and you recover your swagger and start focusing on the dissertation, you’re going to ship off to do research, alone, in a foreign country. For a year.

Yep, my husband’s at that stage right now. He left this morning for Petrozavodsk, Russia (an eight-hour train ride northeast from St. Petersburg), for a language course to improve the Russian he’s been learning for the last couple years. He’ll come back in August, stick around for a month, then disappear for The Long Haul to do research in Astrakhan (super far from St. Petersburg) until at least June, and probably longer.

Here, let’s use a map to show it all. I’ve also marked his previous travels in Baku, Azerbaijan, and Dushanbe, Tajikistan:

K's travels

I probably need this map more than you. My geography is pretty horrible.

So yes, he’s 7000 miles away, which probably doesn’t make for the best emergency contact. While my two years of Russian at a small regional university did prepare me to write like a 5-year-old and say “that is meat” and “where is the location of the post office?” and “I live in the factory,” I’m nowhere close to being able to make myself useful in the places he’s going. Plus, I feel like after several years of struggling to pull together part-time gigs, I’m finally getting really close to securing a full-time job. I don’t want to lose the foothold I have here career-wise so I can be a housewife, or domazhena, or whatever.

I’ve been without him before, for a month or so, but not for this amount of time. We’ve been slowly preparing for it. We replaced our Frankencar with a 2008 Prius that drives like a dream and (inshallah) won’t leave me stranded on the side of the road with nobody to call. He returned almost all his library books, and I’ll take care of the remaining half-dozen after I scan them for him. Mentally, I’ve been preparing by rearranging the pantry, trying to come up with single lady meals that aren’t frozen veggies and cheese, and wondering what to do with his clothes and papers. I haven’t reached a better solution than just keeping them wherever he leaves them. The clothing, that is, not his papers. They will be beaten into submission by him in August, or will suffer my organizational wrath.

Aside from getting used to living without him for a year, I have a few goals I want to accomplish. The first time I lost a significant amount of weight was when he went away for the first time, so I’m going to try seriously doing that again and reset from all the b.s. I’ve internalized about weight loss since then. Since it’ll be nice outside for the first part of his trip, it should be easy for me to get outside and exercise, and now that I have a fuel efficient, non-deathtrap car, I really have no barriers preventing me from traveling around the state. I also have all this camping and backpacking gear that is dying to get used now. In the colder months, I could start up a gym membership and really get serious about weightlifting. In the non-fitness realm, I want to write more and try to finish up a few other household projects, like a recipe book and that wedding scrapbook I once thought I’d make. Plus there’s that dog that always needs walking.

This will totally be me. Except, you know, definitely without the Russian.

This will totally be me. Except, you know, definitely without the Russian.

So day 1 without hubs kinda sucked. We’d been in Pennsylvania for a good friend’s wedding and to cram in other visits with family, and it never seems like enough time when we’re down there. I would have liked to stay a few days longer and avoid the empty apartment waiting for me, but I had stuff to do on Monday and figured it’d be best to just go straight home after dropping him off at the train station. He slept in the car like I knew he would (he’d stayed up all night packing), and he felt guilty about taking the time away from me. After we said goodbye at the station in Newark and I started trying to find my way home, I almost immediately got lost trying to get my GPS to avoid the George Washington Bridge. Seeing that it would take me 3 hours to get home felt awful. I stopped at a rest stop for some breakfast and dog-water, and it was really painful watching this girl slowly throwing together like six egg sandwiches while my bagel just sat there, awaiting its cream cheese. This was the last place I wanted to be – I just wanted to get the hell out of New Jersey and back to Connecticut. As soon as I hit the Merritt Parkway, I felt better.

At home, I decided to clean and organize things instead of nap. Probably a good decision. I also repotted all the plants outside that needed some TLC and cleaned up the porch while I was out there. Dinner was Trader Joe’s themed, with guacamame and spinach wrapped in lavash. It’s the first day of the month, and though I didn’t plan on exercising after the huge exhausting trip, I can still start taking care of myself diet-wise.

Considering all the ingredients were like 10 days old, surprisingly good sandwich!

Considering all the ingredients were like 10 days old, this was a surprisingly good sandwich!

I had the first season of Dexter player in the background, and I managed to stay awake until about 8 minutes from end of the last episode. So close! Not that puppy minded, though.

Leftover pumpkin? We can fix that.

Last fall, my great farmer-warrior friend Liz presented me with the largest neck pumpkin ever to grace my sight. Unfortunately, I don’t have a photo, but this thing had to be close to 20 pounds of pure Pennsylvania Dutch farmwork. It sat around on the chair on my porch until I could logistically figure out how to get it all in the oven (answer: batches and multiple casserole dishes), but once I tackled the beast I had about 14 cups of pumpkin puree. Most of it went to live in the freezer in nice 2-cup baggies, and some of it went into making pumpkin rolls with neufchatel instead of cream cheese, and just a little less sugar than the original recipe called for. The end results had flavors that were way more complex than the vaguely spiced sugar- and fat-bombs that showed up at every winter gathering during my childhood in Pennsylvania, and my coworkers are still swooning at the memory of the roll I brought in to share.

I’ve slowly worked at using up the rest of my stash of pumpkin puree, taking some down here and there to mix in with my morning yogurt and oats. But now it’s mid-January, and with winter and my subsequent cravings for winter food beginning to dwindle, it’s time to get that puree moving. There are all sorts of possibilities out there, like the usual pumpkin pie or pumpkin soup. If you want something a little off the beaten path, there’s pumpkin pie ice cream with caramel sauce, spiced pumpkin-oatmeal cookies, and chocolate swirl pumpkin bread. If you’re a fan of pumpkin ravioli, then something like pumpkin gnocchi with creme fraiche-sage sauce would tickle your fancy.

Then there are the different things my mom would do to use up pumpkin, back in the day when I’d watch her carve up pumpkins late at night and make her own puree to hole up in the freezer. I have to admit, as a kid I didn’t care for her creative use of pumpkin in pancakes, muffins, and cookies. I also turned my nose up at her onion and green pepper pizza, but twenty years later, here I am ordering slices covered in onion and green pepper. And I’ve been stashing a bag of chocolate chips in the pantry just for pumpkin chocolate chip cookies like she used to make.

What emerged from my oven were craggy-looking drop cookies with light, soft, cakelike centers and, if they’re fresh from the oven, just a little crunch around the edges – a nice balance of “yes, I’m eating something healthy” and “OMG COOKIES!” Though they don’t have the same appearance as the smooth discs my mom made all those years ago, the softness and the flavors of warm spices and sweet pumpkin mixing with chocolate are spot-on, and they have that beautiful bright brownish-orange hue that I love.

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Adapted from this Chocolate Chip Pumpkin Cookie recipe at Allrecipes.

Makes about 40 cookies

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 stick (1/2 cup) butter, softened
  • 1/2 cup white sugar
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 to 1 1/2 cups pumpkin puree (I used most of my 2-cup portion… I couldn’t resist saving some for my yogurt tomorrow!)
  • 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • 3/4 tsp baking soda
  • 3/4 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1 cup semisweet chocolate chips

DIRECTIONS

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F and lightly grease your cookie sheet.

In a medium -sized bowl, cream together the butter and sugars. Beat in the egg. Using a wooden spoon, stir in the vanilla extract and pumpkin puree until well-blended.

In a separate bowl, combine all the dry ingredients except for the chocolate chips. Stir the dry ingredients into the pumpkin mixture. You should end up with a slightly stiff dough that’s just a smidge wetter than your typical chocolate chip cookie recipe; if it’s not stiff enough, add a little more flour. Once your dough is at the right consistency, fold in the chocolate chips.

Grab a spoon and drop rounded pieces of dough onto your prepared cookie sheets. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes until the cookies start turning brown. Allow them to cool on the sheet for a few minutes, then transfer to wire rack to cool completely. Enjoy!

These are at their crunchiest right out of the oven and become all soft and cakey the next day, and they would be wonderful with a hot cup of chai tea or a pumpkin spice coffee.

Slowing down – brief thoughts

I have a constantly debilitating urge to do about 86,000 things before launching into 100% purely fun things that don’t have some sort of practical, educational, or social component. So I’ll cook, run, and drink a beer with my husband after a long day without it hanging on my conscience. But there are plenty of times where I tell myself I’m going straight home to a 4-hour gaming marathon…

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… but instead, I did dishes until my eyes turned bloodshot from exhaustion. Then, inexplicably, when I have a deadline looming or there’s a smell I’ve never smelled before coming from the garbage disposal and maybe I should move the 18 pounds of dirty dishes and get to the bottom of it, a new Facebook game appears and sucks me in for 3 hours. Then I feel awful because I went and had fun.

Yeah, I should work on that… let’s make that 86,001 things.

Argh.

Apple Season

‘Tis the season to go apple picking! I haven’t picked apples since I was a wee little one, and now that I have a car and can travel to any of the dozens of farms in the area, I feel like I should be making up for lost time.

Truth be told, I spent the last few years not really eating apples. They’re always much more expensive than bananas, and I’d been burned by the plastic 3-pound bags at the supermarket so many times that I lost interest. However, since I moved to Connecticut and started popping into Whole Foods and the little health-oriented Edge of the Woods market in New Haven, I’ve discovered some local varieties like Macouns that made me downright excited about the approach of apple season.

In the course of researching orchards in the area, I ran across a few (lots) of articles out there about how apple picking is “stupid” or “boring” or, inexplicably, “something girls love.” These articles seem to be written primarily by college bros who probably don’t completely understand how food gets from the farm to their table, let alone how preserving works. And the point of going apple picking and bringing bags and bags of apples home is preserving a product that’s as fresh as it can possibly be. (That and it’s something to do outdoors before it gets miserable and cold.) Since I’m making an effort to eat seasonally and take advantage of local produce, I figured this would be a great educational opportunity to see what’s available to me in my backyard.

Anyway, hubs and I went on over to Bishop’s Orchards in Guilford to see what I could stock up on to enjoy now and freeze away for the winter:
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They had a great little chart that showed which apples were in season at the moment, and the applications for each of them. We picked some Ida Reds for applesauce and a couple soft-fleshed Empires and Cortlands just for the heck of it, but generally we went for crisp apples that were either great for eating raw or held their shape and taste when subjected to heat: Braeburns, Fujis, Golden Delicious, Mutsus / Crispins, and Staymans / Winesaps. All varieties I’d eaten before.

They also had this gigantic variety called Jonagolds, a mix of Golden Delicious and Jonathan that I’d never seen before. We almost completely passed over them and went back at the last minute to pick a few, just to know we’d sampled all the orchard’s varieties. By a twist of fate, the last one I plucked from the tree happened to fall on the ground, and not wanting to leave it as a complete waste, I picked it up and took a bite.

Pure. Heaven. This bruised, wounded thing was possibly the best apple I’d ever tasted. Hubs and I devoured all but the wound, and deeming them The Most Perfect Apple, we frantically filled two bags with just Jonagolds. We left the orchard with nearly 35 pounds of apples. Back at home, we sat on the porch and each had another gigantic Jonagold before surveying our spoils (which included some spiced white wine).

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You can see that maybe 40% of our apples are Jonagolds – trust me, they’re that exciting! And after some experimentation, I found that the Jonagolds were better than the Golden Delicious when it came to cooking and baking. For dessert that night, I dry sauteed Jonagolds and Golden Delicious in butter for about 10 minutes, until they softened. The G-Dels held their shape but completely lost their crunch, and I noticed they lost some taste, too; the Jonagolds held up better. Later when I stewed some G-Dels in water, they looked waterlogged and lost a lot more taste, needing some added sugar (to be fair, this was before I delved into canning and realized that sugar was a necessary evil in preserving apples in liquid). The Jonagolds, on the other hand, remain crispy and sweet. They also beat G-Dels for eating because their skin is a tad softer, as well as being a little sweeter.

Baked stuffed Mutsu apples didn’t work so well – the tops burst open and got soft, but the bottoms stayed crisp and very hard. However, I think that’s because I tried putting them in individual ramekins, so the bottom halves didn’t get proper airflow. Overall they weren’t too sweet, but perhaps I needed to let them ripen a little. They held up much better when I skinned them and canned them, and they’re definitely on my go-to list for pies and canning since they don’t break down like Macintoshes do.

I keep mentioning canning, but I don’t think it was a completely conscious decision. When I realized I had nearly 35 pounds of apples, though… well, there’s only so much you can stuff in a tiny little freezer or eat within a month. There was no better time than now to just dive right into canning. All it took was $15 at Walmart and a couple recipes. If memory serves me correctly, I mainly drew from this apple pie filling recipe.

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But first, hubs wanted to make apple strudel like he did in Home Ec in eighth grade, something he remembered as having a thin but robust (not really flaky) crust, not too sweet, and possibly more German than Austrian. We used some whole wheat flour because the higher protein content (14% versus 11.7% for the white) meant it would be more elastic and easier to roll out. I contributed the cutting of the Mutsus and Staymans, and the making of the vanilla sauce. I’m not sure if we achieved his aims, but I think I prefer mine with a less complicated dough.

The strudel was huge and nearly wiped out our Mutsus and Staymans, so I turned to Jonagolds for my big foray to canning, with delightful results.

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There it is – sanitizing bath for the cans, apple pie filling in progress, and Staymans, Jonagolds, G-Dels, and Mutsus blanching away. The most time-consuming part was cutting up all the apples. I ended up with 8 1/2 pints of apple filling, and once I figured out not to mess with the tops right after they came out of the processing bath, all my jars plinked!

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Every grandmother ever would be proud.

There were also four cups of blush-colored Ida Red applesauce floating around behind all this. Applesauce is easy, though. Apples (peeled or unpeeled), water, sugar, cinnamon stick, lemon juice, cook, stick blender.

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In the spirit of wasting as little as possible, I gave the leftover apple skins their own treatment. As I peeled I mixed them with lemon juice, lots of sugar, and apple pie spices, then baked them low and slow at 225 degrees until they curled in and became crunchy. I  moved them around every 30 minutes or so, picking out the done ones. It took a total of 2 1/2 hours to dehydrate them all – not for the faint of heart.

Note: Make sure you and your friends are allowed you to eat the apple skins. We don’t need any freakouts.

A couple weeks later, I was crazy enough to go buy more local apples from the health market and make another batch of pie filling for the freezer. And I have to say, despite all the craziness and the days spent in the kitchen, my only regret is that I didn’t start way back in September… or even in the summer when I could have caught peach season. But at least I started!

The Holy Trinity of Strength?

A few nights ago I was up late, again, cruising fitness and nutrition blogs and wrecking my sleep pattern. I was really looking for energy bar recipes, but instead found Nerd Fitness. It’s intrigued me and, I think, made me realize what I could be accomplishing.

For instance, Nerd Fitness claims I could get a total body workout with 1) squats or deadlifts, 2) dips, and 3) pull-ups or chin-ups. I can’t even perform an inverted row at the moment, which is a stepping stone towards pull-ups, so I’m guessing the actual move is out of the question at the moment for me.

Just like when my elementary school gym class went down to the playground one cold spring morning to do the important-sounding President’s Challenge. I remember looking at that ominous metal bar with the faded red paint, the line of classmates before me trying and failing to lift their chin to their hands. And I knew I would fail, too. No medal for the overweight, painfully nerdy, painfully socially awkward child THIS time.

But now I can work up to them!! And I kind of really want to do it!

For now, though, I have to attempt not looking like an ass at the rack of free weights in the apartment’s fitness center. This is my current challenge.

And it Starts. Soon-ish…

Hello! It’s Lauren, and I’ve made some really big changes in my life recently, so I’m really looking forward to blogging about all my new escapades. I read plenty enough of books and blogs, but my own written output in recent years has been mainly e-mails and shopping lists. I’m hoping that getting back into substantial writing will help me to focus on my other goals in life. More on that later.

But instead of brainstorming posts and starting to actually write about in-season produce and trail running shoes, I spent the morning obsessively reading other people’s blog posts, then wasted the afternoon fighting with technology and getting the fresh-off-the-truck living room carpet unfurled. And attempting to cook an egg in the microwave, thinking it would save time versus pan frying. (Word of advice: don’t cook an egg in the microwave and think it will save you time.)

So, no time to explain everything or whatever. Hopefully I can get a substantial post out there by the weekend, but for now it’s off to work. When I’m coming back, I’m going to take notes on this and attempt some of them:

Wish me luck! I probably need it!