Photo borrowed from https://hilldalehouse.wordpress.com/2012/05/
It’s always nice to let your belly out now and then. Growing up, probably as far back as first grade, I spent most of the time concentrating on “sucking it in” to look skinnier. Now this is second nature, and I don’t even have to think about keeping my tummy muscles tense. This morning I had a bowl of cereal with raisins (comically, we buy fruit-free muesli and then every morning I add the raisins back in to my bowl just to make it sweeter) and a cup of jasmine tea with milk. Afterwards, since this week I’m not going into the lab, I turned on the heater in my room, crawled into bed under the fluffy, white wool duvet and shut my eyes. Resting after eating always gives me a sense of bliss. Feeling full and happy, I rolled up my shirt half way and let my smooth belly balloon out to all of its glory, much as I’ve seen a few old Latino men do on hot days. Just to give my belly its own place. Just to say, “It’s okay, today you don’t have to suck it in. Today you’re good just how you are.”
We in Germany just saw the first week of spring-like weather this year. People were going nuts buying colorful tulips and daffodils at the corner flower shops, whose large inventory sprawled out onto the sidewalks. Office workers started taking their lunch breaks on the stairs outside of their workplaces to soak up the sun. And fair-weather joggers peeked out for the first time and hit the pavement. I, of course, thought of food. Fresh tomatoes and basil. These spell lots of beautiful things like caprese salads and delightful mozzarella-basil-tomato sandwiches, but combined with that fresh spring breeze that makes you want to go out and stand in the middle of the street and wave your arms around and shout melodiously to your neighbor at the end of the block, they spell Italy…namely, they spell pizza napoletana. Real pizza napoletana is difficult to find outside of Italy, and it is especially difficult to find in little Heidelberg (food snob much?). Lucky for us, the Italian government in all its sobriety has produced an important document detailing the history, features, and specific method of production of Specialita’ Traditionale Garantita “Pizza Napoletana.” You can view it here: http://www.fornobravo.com/vera_pizza_napoletana/VPN_spec.html. I’m so delighted that the Italian government remains committed to retaining pizza as a national priority.
Something that I’ve noticed about Germans is that they love breaks. Breaks are necessary, deserved, and valued as an everyday part of life here. The American workplace worships productivity, and while the Germans are famous for their efficiency and productivity too, showing up at a German lab and hoping to win everyone over with your amazing work ethic won’t get you very far. Who you are to everyone else is all about what happens in the breaks. Morning lab meetings are seen as a break, even though they’re not much fun. They qualify as breaks because while someone is presenting, everyone else is passing around various homemade cakes and pretzels and spreads. Bring the appropriate item (Nutella is always a win) and you’ll be highly esteemed by your coworkers. Bring nothing at all, and people will ask you even as the room fills and you bring up your Powerpoint presentation on the screen, “Are we having a meeting today?” That means you screwed up. Lunch is the ultimate break. Calls for lunch–“Essen?”–begin almost an hour beforehand, and your response better be definite. Are you in this or are you out? Promises of “let you know” or “meet you there” really anger Germans, who see this time as an event and who, like a little kid who keeps a checklist of who is coming to her birthday party, want to know who will be in attendance. Lunch is unhurried and can last over an hour. It will involve inside jokes and sometimes multiple beers (yes, this is a workday). When I’m home in the evening and think back over my day, lunch is what I remember the most. It kind of characterizes the whole day. Afternoon breaks usually consist of coffee. Today my lab partner was really frustrated at the results of a gel and exasperated vowed, “Today I will have a coffee.” As if he was getting revenge somehow with the coffee. I guess breaks really are a form of revenge against the workplace. They’re a rebellion against the productivity imperative that would rather us act like machines than people. They’re German culture fighting for an admirable place in modern life and saying, “Oh, we’ll eat our cake…and we’ll sit and have it too.” Respect.
Something about a drizzly day in Heidelberg and this dish just go together beautifully. It’s been a wet autumn for this region, which has put a damper on normal cheerful autumn activities like sitting in Biergartens wearing light jackets drinking in the company of friends under crisp yellow, orange, and red canopies. This is what I’ve been told autumn here is normally like, and it’s what I had pictured before coming to Germany. Walking in the rain is not always so idyllic, but it does make the cobblestones glisten, the stone cathedral reverberating in chorus all the more inviting, the cafés all the cozier, and Nürnberger Rostbratwürste (pictured above) so deeply satisfying. It was the only thing I ate so far today, and out of reverence I almost don’t want to eat anything else. Not pictured here (because the image would be too strong for some viewers) are the mashed potatoes that also formed the bed for these juicy, sizzling sausages. The rain may come as a disappointment for many Heidelbergers, but for me it’s only served to heighten my senses.
There are so many lovely blogs out there about wholesome recipes gone well. They make cooking look like it comes as naturally to women as say, caring for a baby (also wrong). I’d like to take a different approach given that everything I cook turns out disgusting. There is something sensuous, I would like to argue, even in the dishes gone wrong. I enjoy spending time in the kitchen, which might be why I keep attempting these fruitless feats. My kitchen is warm because the afternoon sun comes through the big window. This is important in Germany, where it’s cold and the house isn’t heated most of the time. I can close the kitchen door while I’m cooking and trap the warm aromas inside (this is not so great when I’m chopping onions). Palak paneer is an Indian creamy spinach dish with cubes of mild, white cheese. The first step is to prepare a garlic-ginger paste. I bought garlic paste and ginger paste and then combined them in a vintage jar. There was something very satisfying about this simple task, and I felt like one of those homey food bloggers because of the expensive vintage jar (which is impractically held closed by four metal clasps). The smell of garlic-ginger paste is heavenly and enough to make you feel like you’ve cooked authentic Indian food even before you’ve begun cooking. Next I heated up some ghee, a kind of Indian butter, in a skillet. In case you’re wondering, yes, this meal cost me a small fortune at specialty markets. : ) Ghee has a sort of sweet smell to it, so when I added the cubes of paneer cheese and they started to brown, my kitchen was filled with a glorious foreign perfume. It was all down hill from there. Didn’t cook the onions long enough, so they ended up being crunchy. Added canned spinach, which had an overpowering taste of nothing that only tons of salt could remedy. I didn’t have a green chile–they don’t sell them here, of course–so I added a bit of Sriracha red chili sauce. It turned the dark spinach an even more depressing color of green. I served it over a basmati rice, which had been overcooked into a paste. It was disgusting. I made myself eat it for two whole meals. Then I threw the rest of it in the garbage dumpster outside while holding my breath so as not to gag. It was an expensive and time-consuming disaster. But for those few glorious hours before I tasted it, my kitchen smelled like an Indian food temple…I was a cooking goddess.
I’ve been sick for three days now, and in my boredom I’ve come up with the perfect system of relief. That’s right, I can’t even put aside my perfectionist ways when I’m sick! So this is it: Hot tea, chili sauce, wasabi. Without going into how good these foods are for your immune system, I can say that they make for a happy sick body (at least as happy as one can be). Hot tea moistens your lungs and makes you cough up all of that mucous. Chili sauce makes your nose run and makes you less congested. Wasabi really opens your sinuses (just be careful with the dose). I’ve never been so satisfied with myself in a state of illness. : )
There are so many sensations to describe Marburg: the bursts of savory aromas arising from the döner kebab joints, the comforting weight of a Jägersnitzel on one’s ribs after dinner, the hot blood pumping right under frigid skin as one walks home up the hill on a nippy late night. But recently I’ve discovered a sensation that must be shared with the world. No one should be deprived of this. It consists of a few thick slices of brie melted and topped with slices of un-peeled nectarine. Melt the sliced brie (usually 3-4 thick slices) in the microwave and then arrange the sliced nectarine on top. Eat on a cold morning for breakfast, preferably while wrapped in a blanket and lying sideways in an oversized armchair with both feet dangling off the arm while watching the sun come up. (But the crumb-fraught tables in the dorm kitchen will also do if you have a good imagination). Brie is really cheap in Marburg and usually tastes great. It melts so wonderfully, but even more beautiful, the white wrapping on the outside remains firm so you still have to do some work with your fork. Nectarines are best when crisp and in season as they are now. The outsides are fuzzy and firm, making for a sensational bite, and the flesh is tangy, juicy and just a bit sweet. Make sure to wrap each slice of nectarine with gooey brie, twirling it around your fork. Towards the end of your meal, use the nectarine skin to release the last bits of brie, which have already cooled, from the plate. You will walk away from such a breakfast with a gleeful freshness still on your tongue and a warm richness in your chest. Also, the brie will coat your lips and make them silky smooth. I can’t think of a more pleasureful way to start one’s day.