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Monthly Archives: June 2012

This week has been full of departures and closures. It was my last week as a  research fellow at the Museum für Islamische Kunst, where I’ve been stationed for nine months. Next week I’ll be leaving Germany to return to the USA. I’ve been slowly saying goodbye to the people who became my friends in Berlin, and my last day at the museum was Thursday. This whole process was more difficult than I expected when I showed up in October. At that point, I was worried that I would be living a life of social isolation for nine months as a foreign researcher at an institution to which I don’t belong, and I thought that leaving would be a breeze. Things turned out differently though, and I’m glad for it.

I made true friends in Berlin and developed a life here. Still, the past twelve months have felt like an extended work-related trip – a situation that I came to enjoy but knew wasn’t permanent. I was living in someone else’s apartment and in someone else’s city. A large portion of this time has been spent alone, and I got used to coming home, cooking dinner for one, listening to the radio or watching something on netflix, learning to savor the time away from the objects of my research. I wrote about this back in September when I was first getting into it.

I don’t think I’ll miss the life of solitary dissertation research, but the experience was an important one to have. Part of living solo was test-driving a method for dealing with this new sort of work that I’m doing: learning how to confine the very abstract and free-form world of the dissertation to certain times and places- not letting it take over my personality completely. I’m still learning, but I feel better prepared to return to a life where I will no longer be living alone, and will need to be both a productive doctoral candidate and a social human being.

And so when Thursday night came around and I realized that was also my last weeknight on this long version of a research trip that I somehow managed to pull off, the feeling was bitter-sweet. I don’t know when I’ll be on another extended trip like this, and I don’t necessarily want to be, but I know the experience has served as a sort of seasoning- something that enriched and added an important dimension to my twenties.

On Thursday I decided to do my usual routine one last time. After I got home, I changed into comfortable clothing and put on one of the archived episodes This American Life. I listened to the episode while I was making dinner – I decided on Spaghetti Bolognese because it’s simple and oh so satisfying, and makes leftovers (an important element of cooking for one). I stuck to the recipe that I have been using a lot lately- it’s loosely adapted from Jamie Oliver:

Finely dice a small yellow onion, a stalk of celery and a 2 large carrots. Sauté these in a cast-iron skillet with a couple of spoons of olive oil until the onions turn translucent. Then take 1 pound of ground beef and add this to the mix, turning the heat down and stirring occasionally. When browned, add 2 cloves of chopped garlic and a red chili. Then add a tin of whole San Marzano tomatoes, and use a potato masher to break them up, adding a healthy bit of salt and black pepper.

When the mixture is bubbling, put it into a hot oven (about 350 F) and let it bake for about 40 minutes, until the top of the beef is golden brown and the sauce is a deep red. Meanwhile, boil water for pasta.  Use an assortment of shapes that had lots of wrinkled edges so that the sauce would stick. Make a quick salad with romaine lettuce leaves and a vinaigrette. Strain the pasta, add the sauce and grate parmesan cheese over the whole deal.

It is interesting to see what you miss when away from home for long stretches of time. When I lived in Yemen for three months, it was rain. It did rain in Yemen on occasion, but it was mostly dry. Sana’a, where I stayed, had no rivers but rather dry beds that had formed from centuries of storms that brought torrents of water down from the hills outside the city. One large riverbed ran right through the middle of town. It was called the Sa’ila, and when the city center was restored, it was paved with stones and equipped with ramps and bridges so that it doubled as a sort of sunken highway, allowing cars to penetrate right into the heart of the old city. It was a rather handsome sight, in fact. When it rained, the Sa’ila flooded and developed a strong current. My neighborhood was located along one of its banks, and after storms, everyone would go outside and watch for hours. Once, I saw a minibus that had been left unattended in the Sa’ila being carried downstream. I always looked forward to rain in Sana’a, and got excited when there were clouds.

In Berlin, I started to crave Chicago public radio, and NPR in general. I don’t listen to the radio much in Chicago but have become addicted to This American Life – originally a Chicago-based program – since I moved here. It’s ridiculous, because I’m in Berlin and there are plenty of interesting local radio shows  which would also be in German and would thus be good for me. But instead I find myself listening to episode after episode in the This American Life archives. In March, I began with the first episode (aired in 1995) and am now half way through 2002. I’ve listened to almost all of them.

I’ve developed a little ritual for Saturdays that revolves around radio programs. First I make breakfast and have coffee, and listen to the latest episode of “Good Food” from KCRW in Los Angeles. This show never fails to impress me. Then I hit Winterfeldtmarkt and buy produce. This week it was peas and the first chanterelles of the season. Then I come home, listen to a couple This American Lifes from the archives, catch up on reading or whatever for the rest of the afternoon. Then I make dinner, listening to another episode while I cook. Only after dinner do I go out and interact with other human beings.

This weekend was cold and rainy, and so it was perfect for my this new antisocial pastime I’ve developed over the last few months.  I had some risotto, so I decided to use the fresh peas from Winterfeldtmarkt in a classic combination of risotto, peas and pork. I shelled the peas (while listening to the radio, of course) and made a broth out of the pea pods – I love this dish because you use everything. Then I fried pork belly with an onion, added the risotto and peas and then the hot broth, ladle by ladle until the rice had absorbed the liquid and was creamy. Then I added parmesan cheese.

This made for a very satisfying dinner, and a pretty great breakfast as well. I took the leftovers and made risotto al salto by coating the mixture in beaten egg and frying them like latkes – these risotto cakes were perfect with a dash Tabasco and a cup of coffee. My only misstep was using pork belly. You should definitely use a cured, salty cut like streaky bacon or pancetta, to get that smoky flavor that was practically meant to go with fresh peas. This is reflected in the recipe below.

Risotto with Peas and Bacon:

Ingredients:

1 pound of fresh peas

1 cup arborio or carnaroli rice

2 small onions

Several strips of streaky bacon, pancetta or cured ham

3 cloves Garlic

1 cup finely grated parmesan cheese

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions:

Shell the peas, saving the pods and setting them aside. You want to have about a cup and a half of peas. Take the pods, trim off any bits of vine and then wash them. Then put the pods, one of the onions, halved, and a clove of garlic in a pan. Cover this with water, add salt and bring to a boil. Continue to boil for around half an hour. The mixture should become very fragrant and the resulting broth should have a light, savory vegetable taste.

Strain the broth and return four cups to a saucepan and heat over a low flame. You want this to be hot and easily accessible so that you can incorporate it slowly into the rice.

Next, finely chop the remaining onion, mince the garlic and cube the bacon/pancetta or ham. Add a bit of oil to a pot and fry the onions and meat until the onions are translucent over medium heat. Then add the garlic and cup of rice and stir until fragrant.

Add the peas, along with one or two ladles of the hot stock. Keeping the heat at medium, let the rice absorb nearly all of the liquid, stirring occasionally so that the rice doesn’t burn. Once the liquid is almost absorbed, add another two ladles. Continue this process until all four cups of the liquid are absorbed. By this time, the rice and peas should be at the right consistency.

Turn the heat off and add the cup of parmesan, stirring to incorporate, and serve immediately with extra parmesan.

To use leftovers if you have them: Beat an egg. Take a heaping spoon of the leftover risotto while still cold and dip it into the egg mixture. Then fry this in olive oil until browned on the bottom (about 3 minutes for a small cake – it helps also to press down while frying a bit to form a pancake-like shape). Flip and fry the other side until brown. Repeat for the remaining risotto, and serve the fried cakes with tabasco sauce.