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9.30.2012

My Salad Days...

It is exceedingly rare for us to have salad as an entree around here. For me, salad is usually an afterthought, something that I pour out of a bag and into a bowl as an easy side dish. I never eat it with enthusiasm, rather I power my way through it so I can feel like I've eaten a vegetable and done something healthy. But, as part of my commitment to introduce less meaty dishes into our repertoire, I decided to put an entree salad on the menu for this evening.

While we're still at the tail end of summer produce season, I wanted to try a recipe for a peach salad I'd spotted online just a couple weeks ago. Years ago, there was a seasonal peach salad on the menu at a restaurant that I frequented with my parents, that I ordered again and again of my own free will. I loved that salad, and was a little bit devastated when it went off the menu once peach season ended, but I've always remembered that combination of peaches, goat cheese, peppery greens, and a zippy vinaigrette. 

I hoped that this salad would capture some of the magic of the one from my past that I remembered so fondly, and for the most part, it did. The mozzarella cheese was milder than goat cheese, but I enjoyed the creaminess and buttery notes it imparted. Plus, I felt that it paired well with the peaches, which was a pleasant surprise. 

My only problem with this recipe was the process for crisping the prosciutto in the oven. I'm not sure if my prosciutto was sliced too thinly, but most of it ended up stuck to the pan I baked it on. I had to scrape off as much of it as I could with a spatula, netting me many miniscule shards of crispy meat, not unlike upscale bacon bits. The rest I had to soak off the pan with hot water, making the clean up situation less than ideal. I do feel like the salty, savory bits of meat drew the dish together, so I wouldn't omit them in the future, but I would consider trying a different brand of prosciutto to see if I had the same result.

I am a little bummed, however, that I did not discover this salad until the end of September. I'm going to have to wait many long months through Chicago's bitter winter until peaches come back into season and I can enjoy this meal once again. I suppose it will give me something else to look forward to, come summer...


Peach, Mozzarella, and Crispy Prosciutto Salad
adapted from Tyler Florrence

4 ripe peaches, pitted, and cut into wedges
8 thin slices of prosciutto
2 c. field green mix
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar 
1/4 c. extra virgin olive oil
8 oz. fresh mozzarella cheese, cut into bit size pieces

Preheat oven to 350.
1. On a baking sheet, lay the slices of prosciutto in a single layer. Bake until firm and golden, 15–20 minutes. The prosciutto may not be crisp in the oven, but will become crisp as it cools.
2. In the meantime, toss the peaches and greens together in a large bowl.
3. In a small bowl, make the dressing by whisking together the vinegar and oil, adding the oil in a slow stream to create an emulsion. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
4. Toss the vegetables together with the dressing and arrange on a serving platter or on plates. Nestle the mozzarella amongst the ingredients, and top with the crisp prosciutto.

9.29.2012

Pattycake, Pattycake...

I think if there's one thing I've established beyond the shadow of the doubt around here, it's that I've developed a full-fledged obsession with sweet potatoes. It's crazy to me, considering I didn't even eat them two years ago, but now I find myself bookmarking virtually every sweet potato recipe that crosses my path. 

Because Justin has expressed a desire to eat more meatless and vegetarian meals lately, I've found myself taking a second look at my stockpile of sweet potato recipes in search of inspiration. After all, sweet potatoes are full of nutrients, and unlike most vegetables, I actually enjoy eating them. This week, I thought I would try adding some meatless or meat-lite dishes to our weekly meal plan, just to test the waters a bit, and my first selection was, unsurprisingly, a recipe that promised to fuse two things I enjoy: sweet potato and crispy cakes, not unlike the semolina-quinoa cakes we had last month. In fact, this recipe was quite similar to that one, only it substituted mashed sweet potato for the semolina; quinoa was still there to add chewy texture and protein.

Without the need to make the semolina, allow it to thicken, and refrigerate it long enough to cut it into cakes, this recipe was much faster, making it more appropriate for a weeknight meal (something to keep in mind when I find myself employed once more and no longer having the luxury of cooking all day.) It would probably also be good, if not quite the same, with leftover mashed sweet potatoes. 

I really liked the texture of the quinoa, and the savory-sweet contrast of the sweet potato with the onion, herbs, and cheese. My only problem was that the recipe was designed to be a side dish for a larger meal, and we were making the patties as an entree with a bit of salad on the side. As a result, there wasn't enough food to be satisfying, so I resolved to double the recipe in the future. And I'll definitely be making these again, not just to meet Justin's request for less meat in our diets, but because they are absolutely delicious. Seriously, if you are even half the the sweet potato fan that I am, you owe it to yourself to give this recipe a try!


Sweet Potato Quinoa Cakes
adapted from How Sweet It Is

2 medium sweet potatoes, about 12 oz., peeled and chopped
1 onion, diced
salt and pepper to taste
4 cloves of garlic, minced
1 c. cooked quinoa
1/2 c. plain breadcrumbs
1/2 c. grated Parmesan
1/4 c. fresh basil, chopped
2 large eggs, lightly beaten

Heat a large skillet over medium-low heat and add oil. Add in sweet potato, onion, season with salt and pepper, stir, cover and cook for 10-12 minutes, or until potato is soft. Remove lid and add garlic, cooking for 30 seconds.

Transfer potato mixture to a large bowl (slightly mashing potato with a fork) and add quinoa, breadcrumbs, cheese, herbs, remaining salt and pepper and mix well. Once combined, add in egg, then mix until moistened. Using your hands to bring it together, form four equally-sized patties. Heat the same skillet over medium heat and add olive oil. Add cakes and cook for 3-4 minutes per side, or until golden brown.

9.28.2012

All Good Things Must Come To An End...

Today, after four years as a temporary employee, I worked my last day at the Chicago History Museum. It is a sad day for me indeed, not only because I'm going to have to face the financial ramifications of losing my income and employer-sponsored healthcare, but because I'm no longer going to see my friends on a daily basis. In many ways, the people have always been the best part of working at CHM, and it is only through their love, support, and the sympathetic ear they've lent me in the last week that I have been able to make it through this goodbye process without totally breaking down.

Working at CHM was my dream for a long time, ever since I realized that there was one institution where I could honor both my passion for museums and American history at the same time. I interned there two years during college, and doggedly applied for every opening I was qualified for once I graduated. Landing a gig there was a dream come true, and I was blessed with interesting work to do, in the form of the Chicago Politics and Chicago Cold War oral history projects that I coordinated. 

I am luckier than most, in that I got to do my dream job so early in my career, and now that my time at the museum is over, I don't know what the future will hold for me. I will have to find a new dream job, and figure out new career aspirations.

My going away card, hand-drawn by the incomparable Erin Tikovitsch. In fact, getting a homemade card from Erin is pretty much the lone bright spot in this entire process.
My coworkers threw me a lovely going away party today, though the atmosphere was decidedly bittersweet. I knew I would have to give a speech, as per CHM tradition, so I tried my best to keep things light and upbeat, even if it didn't reflect my true feelings on my departure. It would also appear that my coworkers going to miss my baked goods as much as I'm going to miss having friends and colleagues with whom to share my kitchen experiments. I can only hope that I'll find another group of coworkers with a sweet tooth in my next position, wherever it may be. 

It is with a heavy heart that I say goodbye to CHM. Wish me luck, everyone, in my job search. May it be short, and as painless as possible.

9.27.2012

Stuff It...

It's been a hard week for me, as I face down my looming unemployment at the end of the week. I'm scared of what the future holds, and sad that an era of my life is ending, and emotions are high. I haven't felt like doing much of anything, much less making dinner, and thankfully, Justin has been picking up the slack in that department. Tonight, when I came home from work and headed straight to bed for a good cry, Justin put together the filling for some stuffed pork chops that I had entered into our weekly meal plan back at the beginning of the week, when I was feeling better and more up to the task of fixing a week of proper dinners.

Andouille sausage had been on sale at the store, so I stocked up and scoured Pinterest for the myriad recipes I had saved that called for it. Though I've not been particularly successful at either pork chops (they always end up overcooked, burnt, and dry in my kitchen) or stuffed meat dishes (where the meat dries out before the stuffing reaches a safe temperature to eat), I never seem to learn my lesson when it comes to cooking and selected a recipe for stuffed pork chops. 

The meat needed to be cooked, and since I was in no shape to do it, Justin made the filling while I wallowed in bed. I managed to peel myself up in time to cut a pocket in the meat for the filling, stuff them, and finish the cooking. While they were probably the best pork chops I've made to date (they were perfectly golden brown and not burnt), and the filling was pleasantly nutty and a little spicy, there was something missing with this dish. I think it begged for some sort of sauce, not necessarily because it was dry (though it could have been juicier), but mostly because it needed some other flavor component on the plate. A little gravy, or pan sauce would have fit the bill nicely.

Then again, feeling as down as I was, it's likely that I wouldn't have been rhapsodic about anything we would have made for dinner tonight. With a little sauce for added interest, I'd be willing to give this recipe another go when I'm feeling more up to properly appreciating it.


Pork Chops with Andouille and Pecan Stuffing
Adapted from A Farm Girl's Dabbles

3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
3 oz. andouille sausage, finely chopped
1/2 c. finely chopped onion
1/4 c. finely chopped celery
1/4 c. finely chopped carrot
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1/3 c. finely chopped pecans
2 tablespoons dry bread crumbs
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried parsley
pinch of cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 pork rib chops that are 1'' thick

1. Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large cast iron skillet (or other heavy oven-safe skillet) over medium heat. Add the andouille and brown for 2 minutes. Stir well and add the onion, celery, and carrots, and cook for 2 more minutes. Add garlic. Stir and cook until onion is translucent and softened. Scrape into a medium bowl and then add the pecans, bread crumbs, thyme, parsley, cayenne, salt, and pepper. Mix well.
2. Preheat oven to 350°.
3. With a sharp knife, cut a deep wide pocket in each chop. Divide the stuffing evenly between the 4 chops and pack into each pocket. Sprinkle both sides of chops with a little kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper.
4. Heat the same cast iron skillet again over medium high heat. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil. When the oil is hot and shimmering, add the chops. Sauté until browned, 4 minutes per side. Then immediately transfer the whole skillet with the chops to the oven. Bake for 7 minutes. This should yield an internal pork chop temperature of about 140°. Pull the skillet out of the oven and let rest on the stove top for a bit, until the temperature rises to 145°.

9.23.2012

Across The Pond - Day Two

We woke up bright and early today to make the drive out to make the drive to Lansing, where Lizzie's graduation was actually taking place. As it turned out, Lizzie attended the Ann Arbor branch of Thomas Cooley Law School, an institution with numerous satellite campuses, and the graduation was to be held at the basketball stadium of Michigan State University. I really ended up with more of a tour of the Big Ten than I had anticipated on this trip, but but thankfully, I don't share my father's prejudices and I could be open-minded about the experience.

Justin and I, in the stands.
We had fairly decent seats for the ceremony, which was just as boring as all graduation ceremonies tend to be (mine included; it was so mind-numbing that I barely remember it and can only recollect the speaker because he died shortly thereafter -- it was Tim Russert), but I was happy to be there to witness Lizzie's special moment. Given that her father was out of the country and unable to attend, I was glad to be able to add to her cheering section.

After getting her diploma.
There was also a nice reception after the ceremony, with food and treats, that we enjoyed before we undertook the final leg of our trip to make it back to Illinois at a decent hour, in order to be ready for work tomorrow. 

Justin's mom, Lizzie, and Justin.
Though we didn't see much of it during our brief weekend sojourn, I can finally say that I've ventured across the lake and visited Michigan for myself. It wasn't nearly as bad as my father made it out to be, in fact, I'd be more than willing to go back again some day, possibly for one of Justin's reunions. It felt good to be a part of Justin's family for the weekend as well, and now that I'm in his life for the long haul, it was good practice for the years to come...

9.22.2012

Across The Pond - Day One

As if my trek across the Virginias with my father earlier this week wasn't enough traveling for one month, I found myself packing up the car yesterday for a little weekend road trip with Justin. His sister, Lizzie, is set to graduate from law school tomorrow in Michigan, so we set out for Ann Arbor, not only to support her and celebrate her special achievement, but also so that Justin could show me the town where he went to school. 

Though Michigan is only a few hours from Illinois, it was the only one of our neighboring states that I had never visited, primarily due to my father's overwhelming (and some might argue irrational) antipathy towards the state university there. Though he did not attend the University of Illinois himself, he is a rabidly loyal fan of their football and basketball teams, and since Michigan is their chief rival within the Big Ten, Dad hates them. He hates them so much that he actually forbid me from entertaining it as an option when I was applying to colleges a decade ago. He was willing to pay for me to go anywhere I wanted to go, but if I went to Michigan, he threatened to cut me off financially. 

Given the smack talk I'd grown up hearing my entire life, I sort of wrote off the entire state, and never really worked up much desire to see it, until I fell in love with a Michigan alum. I knew we'd be going there together some day (after all, I'd taken Justin to see St. Louis), but I didn't realize we'd be going quite so soon, until I heard about Lizzie's graduation. The next thing I knew, we were driving through a long, rainy night to arrive in Ann Arbor near midnight last night. 

Today was our day for exploring the town, which certainly didn't strike me as "the armpit of the universe" as my father described it. In fact, if any place deserves that title, it might be Champaign, home to the U of I, which always struck me as rather dull and unattractive when I was dragged there for football games with my dad's family. Ann Arbor is verdant and charming, lush with foliage, and the UM campus manages to come across as quaint, despite its massive scale. I've still never seen a prettier campus than Wash U, however.

We started our day with a driving tour of town, where Justin pointed out his old apartment, his former employer, and pretty much every library in the city. Justin took me took me to his favorite burrito place for lunch, a place that I'd heard much about, and I was happy to be able to share it with him, though I remain a confirmed member of team Chipotle. 

During the afternoon, we went to see the University of Michigan Museum of Art, which was actually quite impressive, far more so than the art museum at my alma matter, despite the fancy new building that houses it. UMMA was on top of all the latest museum trends, from interactive touchscreen technology to open storage. 

Open storage is a way for museums to give greater exposure to their collection by storing items in a place where the public can see them, without providing the context and information that are usually available in a traditional museum setting. As a museum-goer, it is exciting to see a greater swath of the collection, however, open storage isn't without its problems. For example, the pieces on display are exposed to more light than in a typical storage setting, which is damaging. Therefore, staff has to rotate the objects in and out of conventional storage, which creates greater demand on manpower. It was nevertheless cool to see an institution that is trying out new ideas, and it was neat to see some of the treasures from their collection.

Open storage.
UMMA also had a fantastic collection of African art that really captured my attention, which is unusual, because I don't think I've ever spent more than five minutes in the African art gallery back home at the Art Institute. They were featuring a special exhibit on the past, present, and future of African art, and the pieces spoke to me in a way that African art never has. I don't know if that was because my interest was piqued by seeing Fela! or because UMMA had a particularly unique collection, but it was refreshing to have my eyes opened to a new genre of art.

The Ancestors Converged Again, by El Anatsui, a contemporary Ghanaian sculptor.
Finally, I was excited to see an extensive collection of Louis Comfort Tiffany at UMMA. Many of the pieces were pulled from the H.O. Havemeyer House, the now-destroyed mansion of a wealthy New Yorker with a prolific art collection. He had hired Tiffany to decorate the inside of his 5th Avenue home, and while the majority of the art collection it contained went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the decorations went to UMMA. For me, an avid fan of Tiffany's work, the collection was especially interesting because it featured not only the usual stained glass and mosaics, but other functional pieces created by the artist's workshop, such as fireplace screens and radiator covers, which featured bits of glass woven into a mesh that would not impede airflow. It was a unique insight into the artist's work.

A Tiffany air return grill from the H.O. Havemeyer House.
After the museum, Justin took me on a walk through the inner part of campus, and showed me not only the main undergraduate and graduate libraries (he's a librarian through and through, that one), but the building that houses the School of Information, where he earned his Master's of Library Science.


After our journey through the belly of the beast (at least in my father's eyes), we met up with Lizzie and Justin's mom for dinner at Zingerman's Roadhouse. Zingerman's Deli is a legend in the foodie universe, and everyone who heard I was going to Ann Arbor told me I just had to eat there. Justin and Lizzie, however, find the deli to be overpriced and overrated, so they humored me with a meal at Zingerman's Roadhouse, a more upscale offering in the Zingerman's restaurant empire, instead. I had an excellent, and exceptionally hearty meal of fish chowder, and got to sample the famous Zingerman's mac and cheese that is a fixture on shows like Unique Eats, and The Best Thing I Ever Ate. It was good, though not necessarily life changing; I happen to think that my two favorite mac and cheese recipes from home are a little bit better.

All in all, the day was a bit of a whirlwind, but we managed to cross off the most important sights to Justin, and therefore to me. I was happy to be able to put an image to some of the stories I've heard from him, and to get to learn more about a time in Justin's life before I came along. It was a special day for both of us, and I'm glad I had the opportunity to go.

9.18.2012

Meet Virginia - Day Five

I woke up today praying that I wouldn't be too congested to fly. At this point, I was feeling so lousy that all I could think about was getting home to my own bed, and I didn't want to have to worry about bursting an eardrum to do so. Lucky for me (at least under the circumstances), my nose was too busy dripping constantly like a faucet to head into the congestion phase of a cold, and I deemed myself ready to fly, though likely to infect anyone in my path.

Due to some careful map reading on my part, I had ascertained that our path back to Richmond by way of Monticello, would take us right through the town of Lexington, Virginia, which just so happens to be the burial place of both Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee. Though I easily could have kept this information to myself and saved myself more tromping through the endless rain in my condition, I decided to be a good daughter and tell Dad about my discovery so that we could dutifully stop and pay homage to his heroes. 

Though Dad was unnerved to be driving through the mountains in the rain, we easily found ourselves in Lexington, where we located the dignified monument dedicated to Stonewall Jackson. Though I abhor the Confederate cause, you really can't deny that the man was a military genius. It's just too bad that he wasn't fighting for the Union side -- the war probably would have been much shorter.


Next on our Lexington agenda was a trip to Washington and Lee University, where Robert E. Lee, his family, and even his horse were interred in the chapel. Lee had accepted the presidency of the university after the war to continue his work in education (he had previously taught at West Point), and because his wife's family were kin to the Washingtons, and he admired George Washington greatly. Similar to Jackson, Lee was undoubtedly a master military strategist. If he had been given greater resources, there might actually be two countries inhabiting the territorial space of the United States today.


Though the rain was relentless, we pressed onward to see Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson. We didn't have much time, because we wanted to be back in Richmond with plenty of time to catch our flight, but we figured it was unlikely that we'd be in this part of the country again, so we wanted to try to see as much as we could. The booking agent at the visitor's center seemed skeptical of our plan, but she sold tickets for the next available tour nonetheless.

As we waited for the bus to take us to the main house, it truly began to pour in earnest. It was hard to appreciate the house from the outside, because we were too busy seeking shelter from the weather. Given that the primary draw of Monticello is to admire Jefferson's architectural daring and innovation, the weather was a disappointment, to be sure.


The tour was supposed to only take an hour, but as our guide prattled on endlessly and employed the Socratic method to draw out guesses from the audience about the contents of the house rather than sharing her information with the crowd, the hour stretched on and on. Finally, we had to separate from the group and make a run back to the bus for the visitor's center, or we would have been there all day. Due to the weather, we also missed out on seeing the Jefferson family burial plot, and the slaves' quarters. While the house itself was interesting, I think we really didn't get the most out of our experience at Monticello.

Now starving, we opted to grab lunch at Michie Tavern, a historic roadside tavern near Monticello, which the booking agent at the visitor's center had assured us was an experience not to be missed. She had spoken highly of the authentic food served there, but she must have meant authentic southern-style comfort food, because I doubt very much that they served fried chicken, black eyed peas, mashed potatoes, and collard greens on a regular basis during Thomas Jefferson's time. Though it was quaint that the waitresses wore period clothing, and it was nice that the buffet was all-you-can-eat, I felt that we got a bit of a bum steer with that recommendation.

As we neared Richmond, the skies turned ever darker, and the storm got progressively worse. We were early for our flight, which we quickly discovered had been delayed by the storm. Since it was the last flight to Chicago of the day, I was concerned that it might get cancelled all together. Feeling as crappy as I did, I wanted nothing more than to make it home tonight. On a whim, I asked the woman checking our baggage if it would be possible to be moved onto an earlier flight to Chicago, one that was scheduled to leave about thirty minutes from when we arrived at the airport. She did some lightning computer work, and we soon found ourselves running through the airport to make an earlier flight. 

By the time we got to the gate, we found that the earlier flight had been delayed as well, but at least it was still scheduled to leave. Eventually, we made it out of Richmond still a little bit earlier than we had originally planned, and I was joyfully reunited not only with Justin, but with my own bed and a medicine cabinet full of cold medicine. 

The jury is still out, I think, on whether this trip was worthwhile for me. I did get to see the Greenbrier and its fallout shelter. Even if it wasn't as well-preserved as I would have liked, it was an experience I'll remember all of my life. For the privilege of seeing it, however, I had to see a lot of not especially interesting (at least for me) Civil War sites. I'm happy to have helped Dad cross all those battlefields off his bucket list, and I'm grateful that his largesse allowed me to see the Greenbrier, but the balance of the sightseeing for his trip was undeniably skewed in his favor. And then I got sick, and nobody wants to be sick on vacation.

Perhaps when the memory of this illness has faded, I'll reflect different on this trip, but for now, I'm just happy to be home...

9.17.2012

Meet Virginia - Day Four

Unfortunately, I knew from the moment I woke up this morning that my luck at the Greenbrier was not about to take a turn for the better. I woke up feeling unnaturally exhausted given the amount of sleep I'd gotten, and my throat was ominously sore. Initially, I hoped that it was just dry and that a glass of water would remedy it, but alas, it was not to be. I was rapidly coming down with a cold. 

With my ability to taste food in peril, we treated ourselves to the luxurious breakfast buffet in the resort's main dining room, which almost made up for our lousy dinner the night before. Well fed, we were ready to embark on our scheduled tour of the Greenbrier's bomb shelter. Sadly, they don't allow visitors to take any electronic equipment into the bunker, whether it be cell phones or cameras (after it was decommissioned, it was largely converted into a data storage facility for the private sector, and the equipment is sensitive to the presence of other electronics), so I wasn't able to get any images from the tour, but my memories will stick with me nonetheless.

The exterior of the Greenbrier.
 Oddly, the tour began by going up, instead of going down into the ground. As it turns out, the Greenbrier was located next to a large hill, so engineers excavated into the hillside to construct the bunker, instead of building it deep in the ground. Since it was designed to be a fallout shelter, not a bomb shelter, it was not meant to sustain a direct hit, rather to provide shelter from radioactive fallout after a bomb had been detonated somewhere like Washington D.C. As a result, one actually has to take an elevator up to get into the bunker, since the main building of the hotel rests at the bottom of the hill.

Construction on the Greenbrier's bunker began in 1959, under Eisenhower. At that time, nuclear bombs were delivered by planes, not rockets, so it was believed that Washington would have enough advance warning of an attack to evacuate the Senate and Congress to the Greenbrier. From there, they would be furnished with survival supplies, medical facilities, and sleeping quarters, which were reassigned following every election, when the lineup of legislators changed. The bunker also included a media room, where senators and congressmen could make television addresses against the backdrop of the Capitol, complete with filters that could make the leaves in the background appear green (for spring and summer) or orange (for fall). This was designed to foster a sense of normalcy, though I'm not sure who would have even been alive to watch these broadcasts, much less had a functioning television.

To keep the construction of the bunker a secret, the Greenbrier camouflaged the activity by building a new wing on top of the site, which would contain not only guestrooms, but an exhibition hall and a hospital. Many car shows and other events were held in that exhibition space, and numerous meetings and conferences were held in two adjoining meeting halls, all open to the public. Little did anyone know that the exhibition hall itself was part of the bunker; huge steel doors were hidden behind false wallpaper panels that could be closed in the event of nuclear attack to keep out radioactivity. Similarly, nobody questioned the fact that the maximum capacity for the two meeting spaces were slightly over 100 people for the smaller space, and just over 435 for the larger room. These would become the meeting chambers for the Senate and House, respectively, should the time come. The exhibition space would be subdivided with temporary walls to create office space for the legislators and their staff.

Since, as I mentioned, most of the space in the fallout shelter has been converted to house sensitive data for Fortune 500 companies, most of the original bunker is no longer visible. We got to see the exhibition hall, the meeting rooms, and then we were taken down a couple levels, to see the self-contained power plant that would supply the bunker. Massive drums of diesel would fuel the place, while huge tanks of water would keep the inhabitants from dying of thirst. A huge incinerator was also included, since there was no way for people to dispose of their garbage in the bunker. Smoke would be funneled out to a fake cabin, built deep into the surrounding woods, where it would ostensibly draw less attention.

We also saw an enormous supply tunnel, where trucks would periodically bring fresh supplies, keeping the shelter fully stocked with a current supply of rations, peanut butter, and medical supplies. The living quarters are now gone, but we did get to see a small recreation of the bunk bed set up they were expected to inhabit. Naturally, the Speaker of the House and the Senate Majority leader got their own private rooms with real beds, as they were expected to be in charge of their peers.

Our last stop was the dining hall, which is now used for cooking classes and culinary demonstrations. It features an intentionally unpleasant decor, designed to inspire people to eat their meals and move along rather than linger, since the room was only large enough to accommodate residents eating in many shifts.

Interestingly, the closest the bunker ever came to being used was the same year it was completed -- 1962. The Cuban Missile Crisis was the closest the U.S. ever came to full-blown nuclear war against the Soviet Union, and after that, the bunker was really essentially obsolete. Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) meant that USSR could attack at any time, with only minutes of warning. Still, the bunker at the Greenbrier was kept in a constant state of readiness until 1992, when news of its existence was broken by The Washington Post. With the Cold War at an end, the bunker was decommissioned.

The Greenbrier was left to figure out what to do with the structure, as it had never belonged to the government in the first place. Though the government paid for its construction, they did not want to own it, because it would create a paper trail. Instead, they paid rent to the Greenbrier, which they rolled into federal payments to the nearby C&O Railroad, whose executives owned the hotel. The relationship between the hotel and the railroad, along with its proximity to Washington had been the primary reasons behind selecting the Greenbrier as a location for the bunker in the first place.

The Greenbrier started out life as a hot springs spa, and this structure marks the original location of the spring house.
After our tour, we trekked across the property through a light drizzle to take lunch at the clubhouse overlooking the golf course. The Greenbrier has a notable golf course, designed by Alexander Findlay, which is apparently a big deal. It is also home to the PGA's Greenbrier Classic, which is evidently a big golf tournament. Given that Dad enjoys a game of golf from time to time, as do most of his friends, we felt like we should at least see the course.

The view out over the first hole.
Though the meal wasn't memorable, the view out over the golf course and the surrounding mountains was breathtaking. The increasingly rainy weather obscured much of the view with mist, but it was easy to see that the Alleghenies are indeed quite beautiful. I would imagine there is probably great hiking around there, and some striking nature walks, but with the rain, my ever-worsening cold, and Dad's broken foot, we were in no position to go exploring the countryside.

By the time we were done with lunch, I was pretty much wiped out. We sat briefly by the indoor pool, which looked awfully tempting, but I lacked the energy for a swim. I ended up spending most of the afternoon napping, while Dad conducted business. If it hadn't been for a looming dinner reservation at the main dining room, I would have been content to sleep the entire night away.

Our dinner was truly elegant (so much so that Dad had to purchase a tie at the golf pro shop in order to satisfy their dress requirement.) Luckily for me, there was a clear broth on the menu in the form of tomato consommé, which I actually rather enjoyed, despite the fact that I don't care much for tomatoes. My entree was a riff on vension, with the meat appearing in several different, equally delicious guises. Considering it's probably the last meal I'll be tasting for the next few days, I'm glad it was the best one of the trip so far. 

Even if I felt miserable most of the day, I'll definitely always remember the bunker tour and the opportunity to experience a little piece of the Cold War first hand. It was unfortunate that the rest of the day was somewhat of a waste, but I hear that some people actually go on vacation to relax and catch up on their rest...

9.16.2012

Meet Virgina - Day Three

In a nod to my interests, we ended our time in Richmond this morning with a tour of Hollywood Cemetery, a place that had initially come to my attention due to an engraving in our hotel bathroom entitled, "A View from Hollywood," which does indeed possess an enviable view of the city. The hotel's driver had recommended it to us the day before when he drove us to the Museum of the Confederacy because the weather had been so fine yesterday (we took advantage of the hotel's complimentary driver service for that particular jaunt because we weren't sure what the parking situation would be near the museum.)

It wasn't difficult to persuade Dad to go, considering the prestigious cemetery is considered to be the "Arlington of the South," and features the burial plots of two U.S. presidents (James Monroe and John Tyler), the only Confederate president, Jefferson Davis, and the notable Confederate generals J.E.B. Stuart and George Pickett. Thankfully, the hotel provided us with an excellent map of the premises, otherwise we would have been there for the better part of a day trying to suss out the location of the various significant tombs.


There was an interesting pyramidal monument to the Confederate dead, which was surprising in its scale, if not its elegance. Considering the South were not the victors in the war, I actually found it appropriate that their memorial was on the humble and uncomplicated side.


Naturally, the omnipresent Daughters of the Confederacy had a monument of their own, though it bothered me a lot more. The implications behind their inscription seems to be that the South lost due to a quirk of fate, bad luck, if you will, and not because their cause was not just. Plus, in my mind, the soldiers of the Confederacy did not enter a "glorious immortality;" they were fighting to protect a morally reprehensible economic model, in addition to threatening the sovereignty of the United States. It is sad that so many people lost their lives in the name of that cause, but I'm not sure that they deserve to be celebrated for it.


Monroe and Tyler were buried in the "President's Circle," by far, the most elegant section of the cemetery. Monroe's mausoleum was my favorite, with graceful, Flamboyant Gothic lines and a striking black finish. It looked more like an architectural flourish on a French cathedral than any tomb I've ever seen.


Jefferson Davis, it turns out, suffers the eternal indignity of being buried across from a gentleman named Grant, though he is apparently of no relation to the Union general. One would think that the cemetery establishment would have prevented that from occurring, given how sensitive southerners are towards protecting their "glorious" heritage.

With our tour of Hollywood complete, we left Richmond and headed south, toward Petersburg. Dad was keen on seeing the site of the Battle of the Crater, a particularly bloody moment in American history. Intent on breaking the siege of Petersburg, an important railway depot in supplying the Confederate forces, and the last line of defense standing between the Union and the conquest of Richmond, Union soldiers with mining expertise dug a tunnel under the Confederate fortifications, filled it with explosives, and blew and enormous hole in their defenses. The idea had been that the Union would charge into the gap, and take Petersburg while the Confederates reeled in shock.

What happened, however, was that the Union soldiers themselves were so stunned by the magnitude of the explosion, and under such poor leadership, that they marched straight into the massive crater that was formed by the explosion instead of around it. The steep banks of the crater trapped them, where the Confederates, who now had the high ground, were able to slaughter the trapped men.

Though there was a great interpretive trail at the site, and plenty of natural beauty to behold, we found ourselves unimpressed by the remnants of the actual crater. Apparently, many of the Union dead were buried directly in the crater, by covering the corpses with dirt. The hole was further filled in during the 1920s, when the land served as a golf course. Now, there is a moderate depression at the site, which doesn't really give visitors a feel for the plight of the Union soldiers who were trapped there. 

Slightly disappointed, we headed west towards Appomattox, where we found ourselves on a seemingly endless stretch of road with little in the way of provisions, either gas or food. We finally found a gas station and were able to fuel up, but we had to drive far off the beaten path to locate a McDonald's for lunch, such were the food options along that particular stretch of highway.


In Appomattox, we visited the brand new branch of the Museum of the Confederacy, which was much better than the original back in Richmond. Frankly, they probably could have used the money they spent creating a whole new museum at Appomattox to spruce up their flagship space, but it was nice to see that they were at least cognizant of the latest trends in museum presentation. Almost every display was interactive in some way, and the rooms were full of audio-visual presentations. The objects were given more space, so they could be appropriately appreciated, and even I was excited to see the uniform worn by Lee at the surrender, as well as the pen he used to sign the agreement.


We made one last stop before continuing on our way to the Greenbrier, at Appomattox Courthouse, the historic village maintained by the National Park Service, where Grant actually accepted Lee's surrender. There, I learned that the surrender did not actually occur at the courthouse, but at a private home, which was disassembled and moved to the Smithsonian for preservation. Eventually, since the Smithsonian didn't have room to display it, they returned it to Appomattox Courthouse and restored the building, which you can visit today. The house itself wasn't particularly impressive, but it was cool to stand in a spot where history was made.

With the sun threatening to dip below the horizon, we wrapped up our tour of Appomattox and got back on the road, this time winding our way through the Allegheny Mountains, to the Greenbrier. If the sun hadn't been in our eyes the entire time, it probably would have been a breathtaking drive, but it was difficult to appreciate it while being partially blinded.

The Greenbrier was duly impressive once we finally reached it, but we found ourselves flabbergasted when we laid eyes upon the interior. The inside of the building was a riot of colors, patterns, and textures. There was literally nowhere to look where the eye could rest. Giant scale floral prints met and clashed with damasks and oriental details. It looked like a southern woman got drunk on mint juleps, passed out, hallucinated a garden party, and decided to use it as decorating inspiration. The guest rooms weren't any better, and they seemed rather old and tired. Considering the expense of staying there, I was expecting something more luxurious.

Without a dinner reservation for one of the resort's restaurants, we were relegated to eating at the family-friendly cafe overlooking the casino, where we had a spectacularly underwhelming meal. I ended up with a lame ham sandwich with some sad, soggy sweet potato fries, and the entire meal proved to be ludicrously overpriced given the quality. It was certainly not an auspicious start to our stay at the Greenbrier, and an unfortunate end to a busy day of tourism. Hopefully, tomorrow will prove to be better.

9.15.2012

Meet Virginia - Day Two

For our first full day in Virginia, we started off our sightseeing itinerary at the Museum of the Confederacy -- a must-see attraction in Dad's eyes, and an eye-roll inducer for me. I will confess, I had very low expectations for this museum, and I was mentally bracing myself for an uncomfortable experience. I figured I'd be reading a lot about the "War of Northern Aggression" and pathetic justifications of the South's cause as a battle for the preservation of state's rights, not the continuance of slavery as an economic system. Dad, however, was excited to see artifacts that had belonged to Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and some of the other military leaders he admires, so I sucked it up.

Having arrived early, we snagged a spot on the first tour of the day of the adjacent Confederate White House, the home where Jefferson Davis and his family lived when he was president of the Confederacy. It was pretty standard as far as historic house tours go, one exception being the ridiculously thick Southern accent of our tour guide. It was so impossible to decipher that I found myself tuning him out for large swaths of time, though I did manage to pick up a few interesting tidbits. A bust of Davis, for instance, was smuggled out of the house after the end of the war and buried in the yard of a Confederate sympathizer, who wished to protect it from marauding Yankees. He dug it up and donated it to the museum when the Daughters of the Confederacy came looking for pieces to restore the house.

The porch of the Confederate White House.
The Daughters of the Confederacy were largely responsible for assembling the vast collection of the Museum of the Confederacy. An incredibly persistent group of women, they managed to acquire the auction log from when the contents of the Davis house were auctioned after the war, and tracked down every buyer and guilted them into returning their purchases for free, in order to preserve the glorious memory of the Confederacy. While the entire concept of celebrating the Confederacy turns my stomach, you kind of have to admire their chutzpah.

A recreation of Robert E. Lee's field headquarters.
While they were able to amass a truly enormous collection of uniforms, weapons, and other artifacts, I was further put off by the way in which it was displayed. The exhibits seemed to harken back to an earlier time in exhibition design, when more was deemed better, and context and connection to the audience weren't highly valued. The cases were jam packed with objects, often with only a small key available to ascertain what each object was. To me, it almost diminished the items' importance, since they received virtually no individual attention. It also quickly became tedious walking from overstuffed case to overstuffed case, with little interactive activity to enrich the viewing experience. I was honestly happy to leave and move on.


Since we were only a short walk away, we made a brief stop at the Virginia State Capitol, which was oddly reminiscent of the actual White House in Washington D.C., but nonetheless featured some beautiful grounds, including a nice sculpture park. There was an obligatory equestrian statue of George Washington, who is revered here not only as the father of our country, but as a son of Virginia, as well as a moving statue commemorating the civil rights struggle for equal schooling in the state.

From there, we hopped in the car and headed north toward Fredericksburg, site of a devastating battle in which the Union forces were decimated by the Confederates. On the way, however, Dad wanted to stop at the Stonewall Jackson Shrine, a miniscule national park surrounding the plantation office building where the great Confederate general drew his last breath after being accidentally shot by his own men. The original plantation house is long gone, but the modest out building where Jackson died has been preserved.

The Stonewall Jackson Shrine, in Guinea Station.

There is a modest interpretive site near the structure where you can listen to a recording about Jackson's last days, but the National Park Service employee who is stationed at the house tells a much more compelling, and emotionally resonant version of the tale. It added a much-needed human element to his story, one that make the journey there more worthwhile than it would have been otherwise.


Next on the agenda was Fredericksburg itself, where we encountered some confusion with the GPS, which took us to a historic plantation house instead of the actual battlefield site, since both were part of the same National Park Service operation. We eventually got ourselves sorted out, and Dad found himself fascinated by the landscape there. Viewing it with his own eyes, he proclaimed the Union position to be impossible, and declared that General Burnside should have been court-marshaled for ordering his men to attack the impenetrable Confederate stronghold.

Not knowing anything about the Battle of Fredericksburg myself, I was mostly interested in the terraces that had been cut into the imposing hillside to accommodate a cemetery for the dead of both sides. It was a sobering sight to behold, and to consider the huge numbers of Americans who gave up their lives that day.

We also took a nice walk around the park, albeit an abbreviated one, since Dad is still suffering from a foot fracture he incurred months ago during a trip to Las Vegas. Dad was able to envision what it was like to be a Confederate soldier with a highly defensible position in the so-called "sunken road," hidden behind a stone wall, able to pick off the charging Union soldiers with ease. For him, at least, this leg of the trip had absolutely been worth the voyage.

Nearby was the site of the Battle of Spotsylvania, a skirmish that I had actually heard of, though it was really only memorable to me because of its silly name, rather than the particulars of the engagement. However, Dad opted to skip it in favor of the Battle of Chancellorsville, where Stonewall Jackson was fatally wounded by his own troops. Given his admiration for Jackson (Dad has a statue of him sitting on his desk back home), I can see why he was drawn to Chancellorsville, but the battlefield site wasn't especially interesting. The main item of note there was the film at the visitor's center, which shed more light on the events that transpired there than the actual landscape.

By the time we were finished there, we were quickly running out of daylight, and the locations operated by the National Park Service would soon be closing for the day. Dad had had about as much walking for one day as he could handle anyway, and I had long since reached my tolerance for Civil War tourism, so we opted to head back to Richmond, where we had an average, if passable dinner at Bistro 27, a vaguely Italian restaurant near our hotel.

Tomorrow, we'll leave Richmond, but we'll continue our battlefield-heavy itinerary as we head west, towards the Greenbrier...

9.14.2012

Meet Virginia - Day One

Despite being broke, whenever I get an email from Groupon or LivingSocial advertising their vacation deals, I feel compelled to take a peak. Though they often feature offers for places I have no desire to see, or properties that are of questionable quality, they still provide a tantalizing opportunity to daydream about the places to which I could be traveling if my life circumstances were different.

I was doing just that back in July, when I spotted a photo of a resort that looked vaguely familiar. Clicking on it for more information didn't jog my memory much, but when I googled the property, it all came flooding back to me: the resort was the Greenbrier, and I had seen it ages ago on television, either on the History Channel or the Travel Channel. It captured my attention because it just happened to be home to a massive Cold War era fallout shelter, constructed by the U.S. government to shelter the members of Congress and the Senate in the event of nuclear war. As soon as I saw it, I vowed to see it one day, in light of my academic interest in that period of history. Given how expensive it was to stay at the resort, and the fact that it was inconveniently located in West Virginia (the government needed a remote site that was protected by the neighboring mountains), I figured it would be a long time before I ever made it there.

The LivingSocial deal would make the Greenbrier more within the realm of affordability, but not quite cheap enough for my budget. I knew I'd have to convince my parents to make the trip with me, so I could see the Greenbrier on someone else's dime. At first, I approached Mom, hoping that her interest in genealogy would have unearthed some distant relatives with graves she might be interested in visiting in the area. No such luck on that front, so I moved on to Dad, hoping that the Greenbrier's vague proximity to Appomattox, the site of Lee's surrender to Grant at the end of the Civil War, would spark his interest. 

Thankfully, Dad was intrigued, but he was interested in seeing a lot more than Appomattox. In the process of planning the trip, my mission to see the Greenbrier's bomb shelter turned into a pilgrimage across Virginia and West Virginia, starting in Richmond and heading west, in which we would visit the sites of numerous Civil War battlefields, as well as the capital of the Confederacy. I wasn't so keen on all the Civil War stuff, but I was willing to keep him company in the interest of scratching the Greenbrier off my bucket list.


This is how I found myself in Richmond this evening, a city I never expected I'd see, nor did I have any particular desire to experience. Our flight ended up being much delayed, and we arrived in town just shortly before dinner time, so we checked into our, admittedly, very swanky accomodations at the Jefferson Hotel. In operation since 1895, the Jefferson had all the grandeur and opulence of a European grand hotel, though from the outside, it looked rather more like a cathedral.

The Jefferson.
It featured multiple lobbies on multiple floors, each more grandiose than the last. My favorite featured a lovely stained glass dome. For my part, however, I was mostly just pleased that the hotel took its name from U.S. President Thomas Jefferson, and that it was his statue in the lobby, not Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who remains a celebrated figure in this town. 

Stained glass in the lobby of the Jefferson.
The concierge recommended a nearby restaurant where we could obtain some authentic Southern-style food for dinner, appropriately named Comfort. Dad was not at all pleased that they didn't take reservations and we had to spend time waiting in the bar, but the bartender was a personable chap and he and I had a nice conversation about the Greenbrier, and its secret Cold War past.

Richmond doesn't have a lot going for it architecturally speaking. The best thing it has going for it, in my opinion, is a preponderance of ghost signs.
I genuinely enjoyed my shrimp and grits (so much so, that it will be a challenge not to eat them at every meal on this trip), and my fried catfish, though Dad didn't seem to appreciate the hipster vibe put forth by the atmosphere and the wait staff. It really wasn't his kind of place, and if we'd been in Chicago, and not on vacation, I don't think I would have been able to drag him there in a million years. Still, I'm glad that he humored me. 

Even if the next couple days in Richmond don't hold a lot of excitement for me personally, I'm still looking forward to seeing what the next few days will hold. Maybe I'll be surprised...

9.12.2012

You Say Tomato, I Say Tomahto...

Never say never. Just last week, I was comparing kitchen notes with a friend of mine, who has an equally impressive collection of cooking implements and utensils. It seemed that the only items on which we diverged were our preferred tools for making mashed potatoes. His vote went to the food mill, which has the added benefit of straining out seeds and skins for jam-making and creating homemade apple sauce. A fine, multi-tasking choice, but given that I never make any of those other foods, my vote went to the potato ricer, the device preferred by Alton Brown, one of my food idols. I razzed him a little bit about his preference for the food mill, and proclaimed that I would never be in the market for one myself.

Flash forward to last night, when I sent Justin on an emergency trip to Bed, Bath, and Beyond to procure a last-minute food mill. Unexpectedly, we had found ourselves in possession of a huge bag of homegrown garden tomatoes, a gift from some family friends with whom we had had dinner. Given that I hate raw tomatoes, there was no way that Justin would be able to eat the entire bounty on his own, especially considering that they were already extremely ripe and on the verge of spoiling. The only solution I could come up with was to turn the tomatoes into tomato sauce -- something we would both eat.

Because the tomatoes consisted of an assortment of cherry, plum, and other small heirloom varieties, I immediately thought of an old episode of Good Eats I'd seen years ago, when Alton Brown turned a batch of Roma tomatoes into an unusual sauce by roasting them in the oven instead of simmering them on the stove. I'd always been curious about it, but was too dedicated to my mother's spaghetti recipe, which calls for doctoring up a bottle of Ragu, to ever get around to trying it. Now, with a bag of rapidly deteriorating tomatoes gracing my counter, it seemed that the time for Alton's recipe had finally arrived.

The only catch was that the recipe called for a food mill to remove all the skins and seeds while grinding the roasted tomatoes, garlic, onion, and herbs into a puree that might properly be called a sauce. Much as it pained me to do so, I sent Justin to the store to purchase one while I got started on the sauce. With a nearly three hour prep time for the recipe, I needed to get started right away, or else I would have been up into the wee hours of the evening working on it, and nobody wants to do that on a work night.

While roasting the tomatoes, a heavenly aroma emanated out of the oven, that seemed to be most promising. My new, OXO brand food mill worked like a dream, creating a smooth, luscious sauce. The only problem was that the recipe ultimately yielded so little. Since my tomatoes had been on the petite side, I used more than the recipe called for, but it proved to not be enough. I ended up with approximately enough sauce to dress one and a half servings of pasta. Hardly enough to make all the hours of effort worthwhile. 

The sauce did have a beautiful complexity, and I loved the herbal notes brought about by the addition of thyme in addition to the standard oregano. I might consider making it again in the future with bigger tomatoes, to see if I could increase the yield, otherwise, I'm not sure all that effort would be worth it. Making it again would, however, give me another opportunity to use my new food mill. Otherwise, I'm going to have to take up home canning or something in order to justify the purchase and the space it is currently taking up in my cabinets...


Oven-Roasted Tomato Sauce
adapted from Alton Brown

20 Roma tomatoes, halved
1/4 c. olive oil
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon pepper
1 c. finely diced onion
2 teaspoons garlic, minced
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 tablespoon vodka

Preheat oven to 325.

In 2 (13x9-inch) pans place tomato halves cut side up. Sprinkle with oil, salt and pepper, onion, garlic, and herbs. Bake tomatoes for 2 hours. Check the tomatoes after 1 hour and turn down the heat if they seem to be cooking too quickly. Then turn the oven to 400 degrees and bake another 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and process tomatoes through a food mill on medium dye setting over a small saucepan. Discard skins and seeds. Add vodka, bring to a boil, reduce heat to low and cook for 5 minutes.

9.10.2012

The Man in the Mirror...

Don't worry, I don't plan on turning this into a blog where I ramble incessantly about my pet, but bear with me for a while, as Zoubie is new to our lives, and very cute.

In case you didn't know, betta fish are very aggressive, territorial creatures. Originally, they are from Thailand, and are also known as "Siamese Fighting Fish," because they were selectively bred to kill each other for sport, kind of like a Southeast Asian version of cockfighting. Today, they are valued more for their bright colors, but all those generations of breeding for their fighting prowess mean that bettas don't play well with others. Zoubie will be an only child for his entire lifespan.

Not only do bettas not get along with one another, they can even become enraged if they spot their own reflection. Unfortunately for Zoubie, the walls of his tank are somewhat reflective, and he will puff up his fins and rush at his own image in order to defend his home from this perceived threat.

I'm aware that the glass fishbowl is upside down here. You can blame Zoubie's dad for that one.
All of this makes it all the more sad/ironic that Zoubie's only companions are a pair of tiny glass fish, locked together for eternity while Zoubie is condemned to a life of solitude. Sometimes, I catch him swimming near them, and I imagine him musing on this existential torment in the anger-inflected French accent that I have created for his inner monologue. Perhaps it is as Sartre said, no? "Hell is other people," even if those other people are a couple of tiny fake fish who forever mock your loneliness.

9.05.2012

Opa...

Recently, at work, my friends and I were discussing whether we would elect to have a personal chef, if it meant that they made all decisions about your food for you. The group was divided; some people  thought they would be relieved to be rid of the burden of cooking and didn't mind the thought of surrendering their freedom, as long as the chef made food that adhered to their general tastes and food preferences. The other half of the group was horrified by the thought of losing their autonomy over meal selection. They wanted to be able to run out and buy the ingredients to make whatever dish would satiate the craving they were having in that specific moment. 

I can't say I really fell into either camp; I like cooking for myself, even if it does represent a huge investment of my time, but I couldn't relate to the idea of cooking on a whim, and responding to cravings. My meal choices are almost always predetermined. I sit down once a week with the sale circular for my local grocery store and my Pinterest inspiration board and try to pick out whatever recipes look good at the time, and feature ingredients that I can get on sale. After I run to the store, we have those meals in the order of whatever ingredients I think will go bad first. 

Though I try to honor his requests, Justin's situation is even worse. He is subjected to whatever I've picked out for the week, and generally doesn't get very much choice about whether to eat it. Thankfully, he seems to like my cooking.

Tonight, the complex calculus of selecting recipes based on bargains led us to eating spinach and feta stuffed chicken breasts -- there was a great sale on spinach, and chicken was reasonably priced as well. I still had to shell out for some rather pricey feta, but we had all the other ingredients on hand, so it seemed worth a try, especially since both Justin and I are fans of Greek food, and spanakopita in particular. The filling reminded me a great deal of my beloved spanakopita recipe, so I had been longingly eying the recipe for a while.

Sadly, what works so well when surrounded by crisp, buttery phyllo dough did not translate well into a stuffing for chicken. Though the filling featured lemon and a healthy dose of salt, both flavor enhancers, the dish was inexplicably bland. Also, the chicken took forever to cook with so much filling, and it was so tough and stringy that it was rather unpleasant to eat.

Clearly, the next time I'm craving Greek flavors, I should reach in my freezer and defrost some homemade spanakopita. I'll just have to be sure to factor it into my planning for the week...


9.04.2012

Touch The Sky...

With my tenure at the History Museum ending in a matter of weeks, I've been doing my best to squeeze in as many free museum visits as possible. Though our trip to the Field Museum with Abel and Sinead was about as spur-of-the-moment as the rest of their visit, our recent foray to the Art Institute and today's visit to the Museum of Contemporary Art had been on my summer to-do list for a while. Like the Lichtenstein exhibit, the MCA has an exhibit called "Skyscraper: Art and Architecture Against Gravity" that is ending soon, and I'd been keen on seeing it.

After all, what is more iconic to Chicago than the skyscraper? The architectural form was practically born here, with the construction of the Home Insurance Building in 1885, widely considered to be the world's first skyscraper, though its ten-story height would put it firmly in mid-rise territory today. Today, our skyline includes such icons as the Sears, ahem, excuse me, Willis Tower, the tallest building in the United States, and it's near twin, the Hancock Building. The Trump Tower has made its presence known in the past few years, but there are architectural gems to be found in Chicago from practically every decade since the 1880s.


With the MCA's focus on art, as opposed to architecture, I was curious to see what they would bring to the table with their exhibit on the subject. Not to be anti-intellectual, but their exhibits are often too cerebral for me. I often come away from there with the feeling that their offerings are like the raw kale of the museum world -- I know it's good for me, but it takes a very specific palate to appreciate it.

Hence, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I actually really enjoyed "Skyscrapers." There was a good mix of pieces that were totally "out there," and ones with an obvious connection to the theme. For every bicycle-operated machine erecting an enormous red and white penis painted on multiple panels, there was a clever sculpture playing on the ideas of grids and verticality.


I was especially moved by the inclusion of a room that dealt with our changing relationship to high-rises in the wake of 9/11. In particular, I was fascinated by a mammoth installation of 151 newspaper front-pages from September 12th, the day after the attacks. It was interesting to see how much space was dedicated to the topic, how this varied by country, which images seemed to be most popular with the press, and the various headlines that were used to describe the tragedy. The whole room made me hunger for an exhibit solely dedicated to art inspired by 9/11. Now that we're a decade removed from the events of that day, I think the world is ready.


The exhibit had a notable Chicago bias, which I didn't mind, given that I have a Chicago bias myself, and the skyscraper is inextricably linked to our city. I'm not sure how well it would play in a different city, but it was a perfect exhibit for the MCA, and one that surely attracted a broader audience for them. It was certainly the only time I've ever been tempted to buy an exhibition catalog for anything I've seen there, and if the MCA continues to host exhibits like "Skyscrapers," I may make a point of returning there in the future, even if I have to pay for the privilege.