Friday, October 30, 2009

Yay for Kitchens!

One of the things that I've been missing most lately is a kitchen. A real kitchen that has everything you need- all your favorite spices, the right size bowls and pans, hell, some days I'd be appreciative of any pan. In keeping our wallet and health in mind while traveling, I've been trying to cook instead of getting food on the go, but without some essential tools or even a stove at times, it can be a challenge. (Not to mention that we are both basically vegan and Tau is allergic to gluten so no McDonald drive thrus on this roadtrip!) 

However, through the generosity of a church in Greensburg, KS, this week I have a fully stocked kitchen at my disposal (actually, they even have one of those, which in the past I would've been excited about, but now I much prefer a compost). Anyhow, this huge kitchen is in the church hall and is used for all sorts of large gatherings so there are tools of every size and shape, even a pizza pan! Just as I was beginning to get really excited about all the fabulous things I was going to cook...I went to the "grocery store".

Greensburg is the city that was devastated by a tornado a few years ago and although they are rebuilding, it is slow going and even then, its a small town so certain things are limited. I found out that lots of these “certain things” are things I like to eat. No soy anything (not even frozen pods!), no vegetarian-geared anything, I got a blank stare “and a What kind of star?” when I asked if they carried Morning Star and the produce "section" is 5 feet long with most of the things labeled "product of New Zealand". (Funny side note: the entire town is decorated in pumpkins and gourds of every shape and color, but there is not one edible squash in the store!)
OK, I can deal with this. I've watched enough Top Chefs to know that great chefs improvise and experiment, so that's what I've been doing. Due to the ingredients available however, what I've made this week are very simple things, not wildly experimental. However, for me its been new and exciting dishes every night this week, so I thought I would share a yummy idea if you're in a tiny town in winter and want to eat something other than the cattle that are roaming around (or if you just need a new idea for Tuesday night's dinner).

Polenta Pizza

As I just typed the title of this dish, I realized that this is already cheating because I had the Polenta mix in my car when I got here, but I had never made this before so it counts for this blog, and you also may be able to find corn grits in a tiny town surrounded by corn (or in your local Publix or Whole Foods). This idea is definitely not original, it of course came from online somewhere, but I've changed it, so here's my version.

You need:

  • Dry Polenta (corn grits). Not the refrigerated tube o' slice and bake kind. That stuff may work, but it would be complicated, so just get the dry stuff.
  • Whatever you like on pizza-veggies, sauces, etc. (I highly recommend caramelized onions.)
  • Something that will work as a mold that is at least 1 inch thick - shape doesn't matter as long as you can easily remove polenta from it. Large baking dish or skillet will do.
  • Pizza pan or cookie sheet (maybe not needed, read below for details)
  • Oven
  • Skillet and/or pan and whatever you may need to precook your toppings
  • Imagination
  1. Turn on your boiler and be really thankful that you have an oven to use. :)
  2. Mix the Polenta as directed, its basically “add water and stir”, but follow the package for how much and how long. Be sure to stir often and not have the heat up too high because this stuff definitely can burn and stick. Its kinda fun because when its cooking its pops and burps like a science experiment. It takes about 30 minutes to cook so I hope you have comfortable shoes on and maybe music playing.
  3. When its a delightfully thick concoction, dump it into a mold of some kind that will allow you to spread it as thick as you'd like your crust. I would recommend at least 1 inch as that gives it enough depth to get crispy on both sides, but is still creamy polenta in the middle. You can use a skillet or large baking dish or deep cookie sheet. Let the polenta sit in the mold about 10 minutes.
  4. Either flip it onto a sheet pan of sorts or use your mold pan and put it under the broiler until its golden brown with crispy edges. (I used a large skillet as my mold pan so i could build up sides, but then I flipped it onto a flat pizza pan to cook.) Broil the crust on each side about 7-10 minutes depending on how crispy you want it. While this is cooking you can get your veggies ready, precooking anything that needs it because they will barely be in the oven once they're on the crust.
  5. Once both sides have been browned, take it out and reset your oven to 450 as you prep the next steps.
  6. Like the fun of all homemade pizza, the toppings are entirely up to you! I chose to do mine as “let's clean out the veggie drawer night” so I used a can of artichokes, leftover steamed garlic broccoli, caramelized onions, fresh tomatoes and sauteed mushrooms. (Notice that I precooked some of the veggies as noted in #4). You can really get creative with this part, so don't feel obligated to pull out the jar of tomato sauce. Tau wanted BBQ sauce instead of tomato on his half and I went sauceless, and neither one of us had cheese*, so do it up as you like. (Non-dairy note: the polenta is kinda “creamy” on the inside, so you don't really miss the cheese on this unless you truly think of it as pizza, which it really isn't, but it gives you a good visual and I couldn't think of another name.)
  7. Once the crust is topped with your favorites, put it back in the oven at 450 for another 7 minutes so that all the flavors meld together.
  8. Cut in slices and enjoy!
 *this version is of course good for gluten free and dairy free folks

Monday, October 19, 2009

Happy 5 Month Anniversary to My Travels!

I'm currently in St. Louis staying with my cousins right in the heart of the city. Last night I discovered a great passage in one of his favorite books; I randomly opened it up and this was the page I landed on. I agree with it wholeheartedly and found it to be quite inspirational so of course I wanted to share with whoever it is that takes the time out of their busy lives to read a little bit about mine.

I drove out of Ft. Lauderdale exactly 5 months ago, so I thought this would be an appropriate way to honor the occasion.

So, from Robert Fulghum's “Words I Wish I Wrote”, I present his thoughts on Praxis:

The older I get, the less attention I pay less attention to what people say or think or hope. I notice what they do, how they live, and what they work for.
There is an unresolved argument in the arts and in politics over one's words are to be judged with regard to one's life. I come down on the side of integrity: The life validates the words.
Oratory is empty if it has not be field-tested on the battlefield of experience. And I have little use for those who white beautifully and live sordidly; or those who withdraw from the world and issue instructions for how to live in it; or priesthoods that deny the realities of the flesh but wish to control the appetites and activities of those who live as whole human beings. If you don't play the game, you cant know enough to make the rules. If you are not engaged in the sweaty work of the world, you should not be in charge of the deodorant concession. And if you cannot find a way to aid progress of human affairs, then know that the smirking cynicism of the sideline critic is a form of the plague – and to be one of those is to be a carrier of death instead of preserver of life.
Strong words? Yes, and deeply felt.
The closest I ever come to angry violence is in the presence of someone who says he will not even bother to vote because it doesn't make any difference. I saw a bumper sticker on the back of an old Buick: “If voting really changed anything, it would be illegal.” I felt like giving the driver a bumper bang from behind.
He's so typical of those who have a shallow view of history- those who don't understand that nobody has the right to ride on the bus without making some contribution to the cost of the journey. They don't respect the fact that somebody else paid the price to build the vehicle of civilization in the first place. They owe. We owe. Its a moral obligation to participate in the work of society. If you take from the pot, you must put back into the pot. Even those who have no money can sing and keep the driver awake and hopeful.
It has been said that the hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who, in times of moral crisis, maintain their neutrality. And I say the moral crisis of the times is continuous. Knowing and understanding and being are not enough. One must do. To gain the world and give nothing is to lose your soul.
In the words of Norman Cousins, “The tragedy of life is not death, but what we let die inside us while we live.”

I realize that is is not my role to transform either the world or man; I have neither sufficient virtue nor insight for that. But it may be to serve, in my place, those few values without which even a transformed world would not be worth living in, and man, even if “new” would not deserve to be respected.
-Albert Camus

Friday, October 16, 2009

Freezing, but fun times in Chitown

Sometimes things just really work it out. You can attribute it to luck or resourcefulness, but I think its a bit of both with a dash of optimism thrown in. I arrived back in Chicago two days ago after a brief visit to Ft. Lauderdale and was happy to be back traveling, while also incredibly sad after yet another goodbye to family and friends. However, I'm choosing to be on this adventure, and you have to take the bad with the good, so although the bad this week was tearful goodbyes, the good is stacking up quite nicely.

I made plans to stay with a CouchSurfer for 3 nights in Chicago and, yet again, I couldn't have asked for a better situation. Anya and her mom live on the south side of the city (literally in Obama's neighborhood) and welcomed me into their home by offering me my own bedroom bathroom for all three nights in their beautiful townhome. Add free street side parking and I have had an ideal home for a few nights.

As for what to do while I was in town, all it took was a few clicks online, including a “what should I do in Chicago?” post on Facebook, and I had 2 days of fun, and mostly free, activities planned. Everything worked out perfectly, so my two days in the city included:

  • Chicago Architecture Foundation's River Cruise – 90 minutes of cruising while enjoying the city's skyline and learning about how it came to be. I decided to do this despite the gray skies and 42 degree weather because really, being buried in 6 layers of clothing is just as much a part of the whole Chicago experience as the architecture is. The cruise was fun even though I don't know much about architecture. My favorite building is The Aqua, which I liked even more when I realized it was the only female architect metioned during the entire cruise.

  • Downtown-I walked around downtown with my car safe and free in a nearby garage thanks to validation by the River Cruise. Chicago is a great walking city because you have the fun cultural elements of a bustling downtown, but you don't suffocate because there is the wonderful green (and orange and yellow) elements of Grant Park and the lake right next to the skyscrapers.

  • Veggie Bingo-yes, you read that right, veggie bingo is how I spent my first night in Chicago. Part happy hour, part fundraisier, but all fun my friends. The Hideout, a local bar in Lincoln Park, hosted this event where profits from my $1 bingo cards go to a local food organization and bingo round prizes included locally made yummies such as honey, cider, and bags of farm fresh veggies. Games? Fun people? Local Food? Hell ya for a Wednesday night! Did I mention they were grilling hot dogs (regular and veggie) all night long? Did I also mention the dogs were free with your $1 bingo card? With its hole in the wall appearance the Hideout may look like a bit of a dive bar, but its really a cool spot and it has my vote for coolest little bar in Chicago.

  • Museum of Industry and Science- a perfect rainy day activity which was much needed since it rained all of Day #2. This museum is free weekdays during October and has a new exhibit, You! The Experiece, that is entirely interactive focusing on mind, body and spirit connection. This exhibit included a game that tested my relaxation skills versus another visitor by being hooked up to electrodes of some kind and another where I explored how advertising tricks us all into buying bottled water through psychological hints in commercials. They also had other interesting exhibits about some insane technology of the future (like this awesome guy) and a completely biased FarmTech demonstration that I'm convinced must've been fully sponsored by Monsanto or one of their friends as it advocated many evil industrial farm practices. For example, there was a lot of information about cows, dairy and meat, and all the posted literature talked about how important it is for cows to eat corn, which they aren't even built to eat! (Its amazing how this food policy stuff is continuing to creep into my daily life).

  • Adler Planatarium-this wouldn't necessarily have been on the top of my list of things to do in Chicago, but they were having a free nighttime event where all the exhibits and shows were open from 6-10pm, and since it was still raining, I couldn't resist. I was incredibly impressed with their ridiculously friendly staff and the event was a lot of fun as it had not only their regular spacey exhibits but also some interactive stuff. Many museums do these free nighttime activities to attract the yuppy-ish crowd, so I highly suggest checking out your local museums to see if they do this sort of thing as its a great way to go for free. The Adler had a DJ spinning and good food and drinks, which make 3D star movies narrated by Robert Redford even more enjoyable. (Although to be honest, the people and winter clothes watching was as much, if not more, fun than the star shows.)

I'm glad I came to Chicago; despite the cold and the rain, I had a great time. I had nothing planned just 3 days ago and yet I kept my budget low and experienced some uniquely Chicago things. A lot of people ask me how I manage to travel like I have been doing - on a low budget with not a lot planned ahead of time and really all you need is the optimism...and the internet!