Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Weekend of the Rental Car, or How I Got Lost Everywhere I Drove in California

This past weekend, I rented a car on a whim. The inception of this idea went something like this:

Me: uhhh, I don't know what to do this weekend. Maybe I should just rent a car and drive around.
Andy: Oh, look, Hertz has super cheap cars this weekend.


I was supposed to have a compact car but instead wound up with a Toyota Corolla, which is quite a bit larger than your typical compact. The larger size of the car will be relevant later in the story.

I had a vague framework of destinations in mind - Palo Alto to visit my friend Jakub, San Jose to see my friend Diana, and some sort of viewing of redwood trees. Also, since I was so close, I also decided to make a pilgrimage to the shrine of the Google. Mostly, I just wanted to embrace the California highway culture and explore the land beyond Livermore.

On the way to Google, I stopped at NASA Ames Exploration Center to geek out over space travel and to bask in the excitement of the Curiosity landing.

Almost my shoe size?

Just down the road was the place where all of the magic happens...


I don't know what I was expecting (maybe armed guards or a labyrinth of mind games at the entrance?), but it was pretty cool that you could just drive around the campus. If I had some time, I probably could have even ridden around on a GOOGLE BIKE.

It's like seeing a unicorn or something.

After a quick lunch at a taqueria in Mountain View and a stop at the Stanford shopping mall, I visited my high school friend Jakub who is a grad student at Stanford in chemical engineering. En route to campus, I stumbled upon the Palo Alto Festival of the Arts, which very much reminded me of Arts Fest in State College. Lots of roads were closed off in the downtown because of this festival, and I got super disoriented and mildly lost. Eventually, I found my way to campus. Apparently the mall where I was shopping was adjacent to the campus. I did not know this at the time. Oops!

Stanford's campus is HUGE and absolutely gorgeous. I saw the brand-spanking new engineering labs and even managed to find the materials science building.

Ta da! 

In the main quad, we stopped by the beautiful Stanford Memorial Church. Check out the gorgeous mosaic on the front.

Proof that I didn't just take these pictures from the internet.

That night, I grabbed dinner with Diana, a friend of mine from my REU at Lehigh a few years back, and her boyfriend in San Jose. Again, I missed my exit at least ten times, but I finally made it to downtown San Jose. We ate at a Thai place just adjacent to the San Jose State campus. Then I drove back to Livermore and passed out for the night.

The next day, I decided to venture out of the 'burbs and get in touch with nature at Muir Woods. The journey to Muir Woods was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life. 180 degree turns? 45 degree inclines? Blind corners? The drive up to Muir Woods has it all!

The longest 500 ft elevation in my ENTIRE LIFE.

I think my crowning driving achievement was turning around on a road that was barely wide enough for two cars, with no guard rail, and parallel parking on a 20 degree grade along the side of the road. If I can do that, I can do ANYTHING. The drive was completely worth it, though, as I got to see these trees!

 That tree is gigantic.

On the way home, I drove through Sausalito, which has cute, quaint, nautical seaside charm a la Cape Cod. I topped off the day by getting horribly lost in San Francisco. This resulted in me driving around the Presidio for half an hour before inadvertently driving over the Golden Gate Bridge. I took a picture while driving. This is obviously super safe and probably voids some sort of agreement on my rental car.

Surprise! It's a bridge!

This time, I got super lost, and after freaking out a little (okay, a lot), I finally stopped at a Walgreens where a nice lady with an iPhone helped me with directions and a Russian woman thrust an atlas at me and insisted that I take it before I drove off. So now I have a U.S. Atlas, which will probably come in handy given how many times I got lost.

When I returned the car, I discovered that I had put 288 miles on it over the course of the weekend. I am fairly certain that I drove on pretty much every road in northern CA that ends in "80." It was a great experience. I think I'm really starting to like California. :)

Cheers for now! Have a great rest of the week, kids!

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Farmer's Market Ratatouille

As I only have two more weeks(!) left in Livermore, I'm trying to use up all of the food that I have and be smart about what I buy. Not do the thing where I'm like, oh this looks interesting...I'll use this for something...and then I never do. You know how it is.

I exercised my super-California-ish-ness by biking to the farmer's market. I really like the one in Livermore, especially the Thursday one, which has live music and a bunch of food trucks where you can grab some dinner before you shop. For this recipe, I was able to get everything I needed vegetable-wise at the farmer's market, even the garlic and the parsley. I had some Parmesan cheese left from my kale adventures as well as some pasta sauce from a sauce I had made with leftover chicken sausage and basil from my plant at home that I harvested last weekend.

I searched the web for a ratatouille recipe, and what resulted is sort of an amalgamation of all the recipes I found. This is a good base recipe, but it definitely needs...something. I think maybe some extra seasonings like rosemary or thyme would be great to throw in with the eggplant and onion mixture.

Deliciousness in progress. So colorful!

I served the ratatouille with brown rice, but it would be great with cous cous or another starchy grain to soak up all of the vegetable juices.

Be warned that there is a LOT of prep work involved, but once you get everything chopped, all you need to do is layer it in a dish and poof! After 50 minutes, you have dinner! If you desired, you could probably buy pre-cut veggies or even get cut up stuff off the salad bar at your local supermarket.

Also, the ratatouille gets better with age, so look forward to leftovers!

Farmer's Market Ratatouille

Cooking spray
1 medium onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic
2 Japanese eggplants
2 tbsp fresh parsley
2 medium zucchini
2 medium yellow squash
1 bell pepper
1/2 cup baby carrots, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
2 medium tomatoes
1/3 jar tomato sauce
Fresh basil
Parmesan cheese (about 1 cup-ish)

Preheat oven to 350 F. Lightly coat the bottom and sides of a 9x9" glass baking dish (or any similarly sized casserole dish) with cooking spray.

Spray a large skillet with cooking spray. Saute garlic and onions until garlic starts to brown and onions are slightly translucent. Add the eggplant and continue sauteing until the eggplant is soft, about 10 minutes. In the last minute of cooking the eggplant, add the parsley and cook until incorporated but still green. Season with salt and pepper as desired.

Spread the eggplant mixture on the bottom of the dish. Cover with a few tablespoons of Parmesan cheese. Layer zucchini on top, sprinkle with salt and more cheese. Continue layering the squash, carrots, bell peppers, and tomatoes, salting and adding cheese in between each layer. Top the tomato layer with torn basil, pasta sauce, and a final sprinkling of Parmesan cheese.

Bake for 50 minutes or until cheese is browned and vegetables are soft.

The finished product!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Kale Chronicles

My favorite part about summer is the plethora of unique fresh veggies that appear at the grocery store and farmer's market. Sure, I love the usual suspects like carrots and peppers, but part of the fun of cooking is being inspired by what is in season at any given moment. One class of veggies that doesn't get nearly the respect it deserves is the leafy-greens family. This includes things such as Swiss chard, collard greens (a current obsession when I eat Ethiopian food), and my personal favorite, kale.

I love, love, love kale. It has a strong enough flavor to stand on its own, but it is versatile enough that it blends in with whatever flavors you desire.

When looking at what to make for dinner, I try to adhere to the cook-once-eat-all-week mantra. This pasta dish stores and reheats really well, so you can nom all week from one easy night of cooking. I've adapted this meal from a WeightWatchers recipe. I like to use more kale than the original because as I said, I really like kale, and the extra greens make it more satisfying in my opinion. You really can't go wrong with whatever kind of sausage you use, and you could probably even use other greens like broccoli rabe, chard, or even asparagus if you can't find kale.

I went a little kale-crazy, and I wound up buying two bunches, which is kind of a lot of volume for one person. Thus, I needed to find another recipe to make with my limited ingredients. The idea for kale chips was born!

The term "chip" in relation to kale is kind of a misnomer. They're really more of a crisp than a chip. They're not quite hearty enough to survive a salsa or a dip, but they're light and delicious and perfect for a savory, crispy food craving!

A few notes on kale chip prep: make sure your kale is REALLY dry. Otherwise, it won't crisp up evenly, and you'll have some chips that are overcooked and some that are still floppy. Also, as I found out, the kale chips tend to get soggy if you don't consume them immediately (but a little moisture didn't deter me from eating them!). Enjoy them fresh out of the oven. Plus, they're really yummy when they're still warm.


Pasta with Sausage and Kale
Adapted from recipe "Rigatoni with Sausage and Kale"

2 cups uncooked pasta (I like to use fun shapes like bowties or curly pasta that holds the kale better)
8 oz uncooked bulk turkey or chicken sausage, spicy (I've used spicy turkey sausage and spicy chicken parmesan cheese sausage...both were great!)
1 bunch uncooked kale, roughly chopped into bite-sized pieces
1 cup canned fat free, low-sodium chicken broth
1/4 tsp black pepper
1/8 tsp table salt
1/4 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese


Cook pasta in salted water according to package directions.

Meanwhile, brown sausage in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat, breaking up sausage as it cooks, about 3 minutes. Add kale a handful at a time. Cook, stirring frequently, until limp, about 3 to 5 minutes.

Add broth to skillet and scrape up browned bits on bottom of skillet with a wooden spoon; season with salt and pepper. Cover skillet and reduce heat to low; cook until kale is tender, about 5 to 10 minutes. Stir in rigatoni; heat through.

Sprinkle each serving with about 2 tablespoons of cheese before serving.
Yields about 1 1/2 cups per serving.


Baked Parmesan Kale Chips
Modified from Skinnytaste

1 bunch kale
cooking spray (I used canola, but olive oil would work well, too)
sea salt
black pepper
1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 350 F. Lightly spray large baking sheets with cooking spray.

Wash and thoroughly dry kale. Remove any thick stems, and tear kale into bite sized pieces.

Place kale pieces on baking sheets in a single layer. Spray lightly with cooking spray. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste.

Bake for ~10 minutes, moving the kale around as it shrinks and gets crispy.

Remove from oven, top with cheese, and bake for another ~5 minutes until cheese begins to melt, edges are crisp, and some kale begins to get brown around the edges. Enjoy!

Sunday, August 5, 2012

California Adventures

Hi, all!

Okay, for real, I'm going to update more frequently and stuff.

It's been a busy few weeks with the transition from ABQ to CA. This week was actually my first full week at Sandia/CA because of all of the travel! Last week, I had my fellowship conference in Washington, DC, so I basically dropped my stuff in California and then took off for the east coast 48 hours later. Over the course of a week, I was in every time zone. I started the week in ABQ, moved to Livermore, flew to DC via Chicago, and then flew to Chicago and finally SF. (I also discovered the exact turnaround time of a 46" x 41" poster at FedEx/Kinko's if submitted the night before it is needed. But that's a story for another day...) Oof. I am racking up the frequent flyer miles, let me tell you. I keep saying that I should take a vacation when I'm done with all of this summer stuff, but really, I may just want to stay put for a while.

I was able to squeeze in a much-needed but entirely too short visit home to Evanston. Andy and I signed a lease on an apartment in Chicago(!) while I was home, which was very exciting indeed. I got a chance to walk through it, too, which was awesome. It's a HUGE place with a kitchen that is easily the size of our current living room. I'm excited for the move and excited to have people over for a housewarming! I'm heading home in a few weeks to help pack for the move, even though I can't be there during the actual move. Chicago people, I'm counting on you in my absence! :)

Even though I've only been here working for real for a little over a week, I've already been working hard. I've been working 9, 10, even 11 hour days. I didn't think this whole practicum thing was supposed to be so intense. Maybe I got the short end of the stick. Who knows. I get to play with lasers so that's cool? The experimental setup that we're using is more complicated than anything I've ever used before, which is super intimidating. There are so many things that can go wrong. Luckily, I have a fellow grad student name Darwin (which is apparently a very common name in Indonesia where he is from) who is a pro at operating the system. He claims that I can bother him with as many questions as I have. I hope this is true, but at least he doesn't seem to be too annoyed yet. :) I'm starting to get the feel of the system now, but I feel like once I get it mastered, I'm going to be leaving. Ah well.

Since this was my first weekend in Livermore, I decided to walk about a bit. The downtown is super cute and friendly. There are all kinds of restaurants and small shops. I spent a good chunk of my morning sitting outside Panama Red Coffee Co with my Kindle and a tall cup of coffee. I got in some quality people watching while I was at it. Moving along, I stopped by the Donut Wheel and Noah's Bagels to get some donuts for breakfast tomorrow and bagels for breakfast throughout the week. I walked all the way to Nob Hill Foods (no, not like the ABQ Nob Hill. It wasn't THAT long of a walk) and Trader Joe's (yes, I found it already). One thing I've found is that, apparently, no one takes public transit here. In the morning,  no more than four people have been on the bus. Today I figured out that on Saturday, only every other bus runs to the stop near my building. So I got stranded for a bit at the Livermore transit center with my bags of groceries. Oh well. Chicagoans don't know how good we have it. For real. I miss the el!

Livermore is also home to about 50 wineries. After perusing Google Maps today, I found out that there are at least two wineries down the street from my apartment. Maybe this will be how I spend my Sunday, hmmm? I'm really looking forward to checking out the farmer's market tomorrow. I love farm-fresh produce, and I really missed having that opportunity in ABQ.

Speaking of ABQ, I've recently started watching Breaking Bad. I am really glad I did not start watching it when I was living in ABQ, as I may not have ever left my hotel. At least I never went to the South Valley, so I guess I would have been okay? The show is, uh, addictive, so to speak, and I've already gotten through the first season. Eep!

California is generally pretty okay so far. I'm starting to get my bearings, and I hope to do some exploring! If anyone has any ideas or suggestions on things to do in NorCal, I am open to suggestions!

Have a great rest of the weekend, folks!