Monday, August 22, 2011

Recipe: Steak Lettuce Wraps

A simple but (absolutely, holy crap) delicious dinner for two on a late summer day: marinated and thinly-sliced grilled steak, rolled up in lettuce leaves with a handful of herbs and other toppings.


Ingredients (serves 2)

1 lb sirloin steak
cherry tomatoes, halved
cucumber, julienned
shallots, thinly sliced
soy sauce
1-2 limes


1. Marinate the steak with soy sauce and the juice of about half a lime. The longer the better.

2. Prepare the tomatoes, cucumbers, and fresh herbs.

3. Grill the steak until desired done-ness (I always prefer medium or medium-rare, especially if the meat is of good quality). If you don't have a grill, searing it on very high heat will do.

4. Make some more soy sauce / lime juice dressing, adding a bit of sugar to taste.

5. Thinly slice the steak across the grain. Drizzle the dressing over and let it soak into the meat.

6. Roll up some steak and veggies into a lettuce leaf. Devour.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Gary, Indiana.

My fondest memories of college are of tunnels and roofs. Armed with a rough game plan and an exit strategy (though most often not), we'd get dressed in black and set out in the dead of night. It was my introduction to the thrill of not knowing what you'd find or where you'd end up, of flirting with danger just enough that you hear your heart in your ears. It was the thrill of going where other people would not imagine going.

When I graduated, there was a part of me that wanted to close the book on these antics. We managed to elude discovery in college, but one fumble now and I'd have too much on the line. Still, the urge gnaws at me sometimes - on multiple occasions I've visited penthouses or basements on campus just to see if it had a hatch or a door that looked promising. Just to see.

But while exploring campus infrastructure is necessarily a thing of the past, there is a world of urban exploration that I'm just now starting to understand, and it beckons.

I'll never forget the first time I took the interstate that cut through Gary, Indiana. The sky was pink at dusk, and against it were these enormous blue structures, pipes reaching high up emitting fumes of black smoke. Bolts and panes of steel, industrial textures, monster machinery. Cars of an abandoned train lined up in front, yellow and dirtied, covered in graffiti. The image was striking. It was beautiful in the ugliest of ways, and was something I wanted to see again, to dwell on, to capture.

I began to plan a visit to Gary in person, initially with the goal of photographing these steel mills. Quickly, though, my fascination with this rust belt imagery evolved into a fascination with the rest of Gary. In the early 1900's, U.S. Steel chose Gary as a primary operating center, which tied the city's economy closely with steel production. In the 1960's, as steel became much more competitive overseas, so began Gary's avalanche decline.

Train station.

Nowadays, all the troubles that could afflict a city, Gary has them. Unemployment, crumbling infrastructure, low educational attainment, low median income, and most notoriously, some of the highest crime rates in the country. In the Midwest, people see Gary as some sort of black hole, a place where you dip your toe in and get shot. This caricature of the city doesn't factor in the 80,000 people that still live there. It is certainly a shell of what it used to be, but it's still a living, breathing city, one that has seen dark days and glory days alike, one whose residents keep trying to exist as they have since the steel mills were in full production.

Post office, interior.

There is a main strip called Broadway, running north-south all the way through town. Streets to the west are named by presidents, and to the east they're named by states. Every other house is abandoned. There was no imminent feeling of danger driving around during the day, but there are places I wouldn't want to find myself when the sun goes down.


What would you do if you were one of these people, if you lived here? my friend Ben asked me. The thought was inconceivable. The closest I can come to understanding the people who live here is by getting a glimpse of how things used to be, and how things have changed since then. The empty places that we explored - a house, a train station, a post office - are a window into these changes.

It was with a combination of romance, sadness, and awe that I saw Gary. The goal in this kind of urban exploration is to come to understand a place in a different way, by sifting through the underlayers.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Project Fixie.

Voila, my first-ever bike build! For me, the mechanically inept, the challenge of piecing together a bicycle was a formidable one at first, but I'm pleased to say that I built a working machine that also looks pretty snazzy on the road.


The process went like this:

STEP 1. Stripped the frame down of its original paint. I used a chemical paint-stripper, several times. To get around the lugs, I used steel wool and sand paper and scraped until my arms fell off. Then I sanded the bare metal down until it gleamed.



STEP 2. Base color of hunter green – 4 coats. Rustoleum paint.

STEP 3. After the green had thoroughly dried, I taped up the necessary parts, and painted gold stripes. This was far and away the most difficult part, in its delicacy and large room for error. I used the kind of tape that has peel-off paper backing. I measured it out carefully, cut the tape into the desired shape, put it on the bike and spray painted around the tape. When I went to remove the tape, I was terrified that a number of things would go wrong – the gold would smudge on the green, the green would chip, things would be misaligned – but all went well.



STEP 4. Clear gloss to protect the paint – 4 coats.

STEP 5. Installed headset, stem, handlebars, seatpost. (i.e. the "hardware")

STEP 6. Installed a front brake and single brake lever. Wrapped the handlebars with Cinelli natural cork tape. Shaved down some wine bottle corks and used them as bar stops. Secured the ends with hemp twine.



STEP 7. Painted the handlebars with amber shellac, 4 coats. Color turned from light amber to a warm brown, very similar to aged leather. The color matched well with my leather saddle (a Brooks knock-off, with brass bolts).




STEP 8. Installed a square-taper bottom bracket, with the help of some muscle from friends. Decided on a 46:20 gearing. Installed cog and lockring on rear wheel.


STEP 9. Pake gold crankset and All-City gold pedals. KMC gold chain, adjusted for a straight chain line and proper chain tension.


The best part of the process was making regular visits to the two bike shops in town to ask for advice and just talk about bikes in general. Whenever my cycling friends didn't have a tool I needed, the bike shop people were happy to let me camp out and use their stand and tools. I did all the mechanical work, but my choice of parts was heavily guided by the guys at the shop. The most difficult part of making this bike was not actually the building (which, condensed together, would have only taken me a single weekend), but just making sure that all the parts I used would be compatible with each other. It was like an intriguing mechanical jigsaw puzzle.

Alright, I'm going to go actually ride this thing now.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Old Plank Farm.

Plymouth, WI. Population 8000, home to the quintessential bread-and-butter American who does his groceries at the Piggly Wiggly Supermarket and his laundry at the local Laundr-o-mat. The town lies in the middle of miles and miles of green pasture and cheese farms.

I’ve been here for a week now, working for a young organic farmer on her 25-acre plot of land. There are 900 egg chickens, 200 meat chickens, 4 goats, a cute border collie named Max, and two kittens that live out in the barn. 3 pigs are due to arrive next week. Out in the fields, few vegetables are ready this early in the season, but small signs of life are beginning to poke out from the dirt – sweet corn, lettuce, strawberries, and newly-planted potatoes. In the greenhouse, currently in seedling cells waiting to be transferred into the soil are kale, chard, tomatoes, cucumbers, kohlrabi, zucchini.

The beginnings of sweet corn.

The eggs are sold at a local coop a short drive away in Sheboygan. 20 people subscribe to the farm’s CSA (community-supported agriculture) program, which means they buy a share of the land and drive out once a week to collect their fresh produce.


Now in its third year, the farm is still in its infancy. The land is still haphazardly divided, the soil is a bit rocky, and there is an irrigation pond that needs to be built. Not much money rolls in yet, many functional structures still need to be constructed, and equipment is borrowed – but there is bounty enough to eat from the earth year-round, and this farmer has a work ethic to rival three men combined. The only thing that seems to frustrate her is not being able to work 24 hours a day.


The days start early with routine morning chores.

The goats need to be milked every 12 hours. Momma, the gray one, is a stubborn thing who withholds milk on purpose just out of spite. Lucy, the small brown one, is ever fidgety, always threatening to knock over the milk bowl. If I can manage to get them calmed down and cooperating – and that’s a big if – the pinch-and-squeeze rhythm of milking isn’t as difficult as I’d imagined. The other goats will come by and nibble on my ear, and the cats will try to steal a few licks. After all this, the milk gets filtered for impurities, and we drink it, raw and chilled, with breakfast lunch and dinner.


Twice a day, I’m responsible for feeding and watering the little chicks that are now housed in the brooder for warmth, as they slowly grow into sizable broilers. If they get too hungry, they attack my scoop as I reach in to fill their troughs. A madly chirping, adorable yellow mass.

Brooder where the chicks are housed.


Out on the backside of the field, there are five coops of adult broilers that have to be moved every day. This ensures that they get fresh grass and new bugs, and that they’re never trampling over their own feces.

Same with the egg-laying chickens. They’re housed in wooden triangular frames in a large fenced-in area of land that also has to be shifted every few days. The problem of moving the frames is not a trivial one. Another intern has been working to construct an egg-mobile on wheels, to make things easier.

Ever-curious chickens gathered around to see what I'm doing. Triangular frames in the back, where they lay their eggs.

Construction of the egg-mobile.

Every day, we go out with baskets and collect the day’s fresh eggs that the hens laid in their triangular houses. Then they must be washed one-by-one, inspected for cracks – small cracks we salvage for ourselves, bad cracks we throw to the animals – and then packaged in cartons for sale. Every day, the hens produce at least 50 dozen eggs.

Those “pasture-raised” eggs and chicken you buy at the grocery store? Behind them is a lot of labor, dirty work, and love.

Aside from these daily chores, other tasks vary from day to day. Right now I’m working to paint a rolling vegetable stand that will be used to sell roadside produce. I’ve planted seeds in cells, turned over rows of soil, pulled up thistles and dandelions from the strawberry plot, covered up plants to protect from frost, and helped cover potatoes with moldy hay to help them grow. The two other interns that also live here have been working to construct a chicken-plucker in preparation for when the broilers go to be slaughtered, and also a fenced-in pen to hold the pigs.

The flats where seeds are planted, before being transplanted into the ground.

I have a week left on the farm. There is much more to do and to learn.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Cycling in the Ozarks.

It had been a harrowing semester, averaging less than 7 hours of sleep a night, work days packed down to the minute, schedule so tight I had to keep reminding myself to breathe. After all that, spring break this year came highly anticipated, and gave me the chance to restore both my mind and my body.

Mizzou road race

As soon as classes ended, our team drove out to Springfield, MO for the weekend’s races at Missouri State. The road course on Saturday was a 35-mile loop over rolling hills with one long, steep climb. I stayed with the front group for the first 20 miles or so, until a false flat left me winded and paired with a rider from Depauw.


I should have dropped her the moment she started complaining about the climbs, but something made me decide to stay with her in case we could work together to chase the front. That was a mistake that cost me a better finish, and I consider it a lesson learned. “Race your race”, as they say. I finally left her behind on the big climb, and spent the rest of the race trying to make up for lost time. I finished fourth.

Quite proud of this photo of Naveen's finish.

Mizzou ITT and TTT

I hate individual time trials, mostly because I suck at them. Sunday’s weather was a biting cold, and I spent the 20km devoid of any motivation to be fast. The team time trial was a smidgeon better; my teammate Hope and I enjoyed being the uncontested champions, being the only group in our category to race.

We spent the rest of the day driving to northwest Arkansas, right in the Ozark mountain range. The 16 of us made ourselves at home in our two side-by-side cabins.

Arkansas Day 1:

Cold, wet, miserable weather. I decided to take the day off the bike, and explore the surrounding woods with Becky, Doza, Chris, and Stephen.





The evening ended with a bonfire, s’mores, and a good soak in the hot-tub.


Arkansas Day 2:

Summary: Petit Jean and Mount Nebo, 65 miles, 3000 feet of climbing

Eight of us (Naveen, Stephen, Doza, Cortez, Erik, Branden, Becky) drove 1.5 hours to the town of Dardanelle, and from there started a 50-mile ride that looped us through mostly flat terrain with one 3-mile climb over Petit Jean. The pace was good; I sat in behind the boys and cruised, silently thanking them for the cycling chivalry.

Finished with the “warm-up” 50 miles, most of us continued onto the looming Mount Nebo. I’d heard stories, and I was afraid. 23 percent grade? 18 switchbacks? Pros having to get off and walk? They were all true. If there could be sorrier excuses for climbing a mountain on a bike, I’d like to hear them. I was heaving and hawing, stopping to push my bike, yelling profanities, and sinking with despair every time I saw yet another switchback. When I finally got to the top, I was so angry with myself I simply couldn’t enjoy the feeling of getting there. I felt like I had cheated, like the summit wasn’t really a success, like I had lost a psychological battle with the mountain.

On the lookout. I'm not too happy.

The descent was extremely hairy. I gripped my brakes the entire way, leaned my butt far back over the saddle, and prayed my arms and my focus wouldn’t give out. I’ll be back, Nebo, next time with the bragging rights I failed to achieve this time around.

The Nebo group.

Arkansas Day 3:

Today was a rest day to finish up some schoolwork. Becky and I drove to a nearby town to do laundry, and spent most of the afternoon at a McDonald’s for internet. I have to say, backcountry Arkansas is like a foreign country. I swear that cashier has never had anyone ask if they have Wifi. Ever.

The weather was too nice to pass up a ride. Our cabin was located on top of a mountain, so Becky and I decided to descend the mountain and then climb back up. To the east lay Lake Fort Smith. To the south lay the small town of Mountainburg (population 682). We first took the descent to the lake, climbed back up, then descended into town, and climbed back up again, making about 25 miles of riding total. The climbs were enjoyable – long, steady inclines.

In the evening, Becky and I cooked a delicious dinner of pork chops, browned then simmered with onions, mushrooms, and apples.



Later that night, Naveen, Matt, Chris, and I drove down to Lake Fort Smith and plunged headfirst into the freezing cold water. A shrieking, invigorating good time.

Arkansas Day 4:

Summary: Mount Magazine, 40 miles total

Hour-long drive to the town of Paris. From there, we began a gradual incline for 15 miles to the base of Mount Magazine. Once the climb started, the seven of us (Naveen, Doza, Stephen, Chris, Erik, Wil) split off into groups. I went at my own steady pace, feeling the tailwind push me up the mountain, hardly noticing the miles go by, so focused I was on keeping my breathing and pedal stroke smooth. I met Erik and Wil at the top, the highest point in Arkansas.


The descent was brilliant. Erik and Wil are powerhouses, and I used that to my advantage. I locked myself onto their wheels and flew down the mountain, sustaining breakneck speeds. I never once touched my brakes, and felt completely in tune with my handling, rounding the curves in the road, and staying locked on. It was indescribable, truly one of the best moments of my short cycling career.

After getting back, we headed straight to the lake, soaked our tired legs in the icy water, and enjoyed the sunshine.




Arkansas Day 5:

Summary: Oklahoma border, 75 miles, rolling hills

Five of us (Matt, Stephen, Erik, Branden) set out from our cabin for the Oklahoma border. The scenery was beautiful and rustic – chipped barns, old houses, white-washed picket fences, cows, horses, and annoying yappy dogs that tried to bite our heels at every corner. The terrain was all big rolling hills with not an inch of flat road.

Legs feeling dead from all the accumulated miles, Branden and I sat back after reaching Oklahoma and went the rest of the way at a relaxed pace. The last five-mile climb back up to our cabin was painful. I had maxed out my legs, and they did not thank me for rounding off a long, hilly ride with a mountain.

Still, there are few things sweeter than the feeling of tiredness that comes with quality miles, and few things to make a person more content than to take a brief pause from worldly responsibilities to do nothing but sleep, eat, ride, and repeat. Already looking forward to next year.


Sunday, February 20, 2011

On memory.

I read an article today in the New York Times Magazine, entitled "Secrets of a Mind-Gamer: How I trained my brain and became a world-class memory athlete."

The journalist's intentioned story on the U.S. Memory Championships - a series of grueling "events" in memorization administered to a highly-trained group of memory "athletes" - later turned into a participatory self-experiment. The result is a fascinating and introspective take on not only how to sharpen one's abilities to memorize, but also why it is so important that we retain these skills, even in the face of technological conveniences that preclude the necessity to do so.

Occasionally there are those articles that, as I read, I find myself muttering "yes" and "yes" under my breath, and this was one of those. Specifically, this point:
Until relatively recently, people read “intensively,” Darnton says. “They had only a few books — the Bible, an almanac, a devotional work or two — and they read them over and over again, usually aloud and in groups, so that a narrow range of traditional literature became deeply impressed on their consciousness.” Today we read books “extensively,” often without sustained focus, and with rare exceptions we read each book only once. We value quantity of reading over quality of reading. We have no choice, if we want to keep up with the broader culture. I always find looking up at my shelves, at the books that have drained so many of my waking hours, to be a dispiriting experience. There are books up there that I can’t even remember whether I’ve read or not.

Increasingly in the past several years, I have fought to balance my desire to read about as many subjects as possible, with the capacity of my brain to contain it all. I liken the struggle to a never-ending treadmill of information, and I'm always on the brink of falling off from not being able to keep pace.

One thing that I've always been self-conscious about is my memory, and the speed at which I retain information. My closest friends are characterized by being both extremely bright and very well-read (no, these are not synonymous), and always seem to blaze through the information that met them. I wouldn't call it an inferiority complex, but I did envy the ease with which they seemed to read something once, and still be able to discuss it at length months later. It always seemed to take me more time and more repetition to knock things into my noggin, and the consequence of that was feeling like I knew so little about anything.

My first response to these frustrations, a year or two into college, was to increase the volume of my reading. I filled my RSS feed with science blogs, magazine feeds, news feeds, Boing Boing, etc. I spent considerable time and effort poring over websites and articles, in this obsessive quest for all-around knowledge. It took me another year or two to realize that my plan was counterproductive. The good result was that I became interested in many subjects that I'm still fascinated by - for example, cognitive science, evolutionary biology, linguistics, sustainable agriculture - but the serious downside was that I stretched myself out too thin and didn't feel much more conversant about anything than before.

What I had been missing, just as the author of the article pointed out, was intensity of reading. The act of reading a book slowly and learning its contents carefully and thoughtfully, can never be substituted by an attempt to read everything that's published on the internet. It is still important for me to be well-informed on many subjects, but I had been going about it the wrong way.

In the past year, I've come to fully realize the relative efficacy of reading books or good magazines in terms of gaining and retaining knowledge, and have learned how not to be distracted by the overwhelming glut of information online, most of which is useless anyway. Sometimes, I still have lapses of feeling suddenly like I don't know a damn thing, and then feel overwhelmed by all this available knowledge on the internet that I should be constantly feeding to myself. But it is slowly getting easier, and importantly so, because my reading for grad school is necessarily intense and focused. Now, when I'm not reading papers, I have limited reading time for other subjects, and it is important that I learn how to make that time count. (I think that if grad school meant I didn't have time to read about anything other than statistical theory, I would entirely cease to be myself.)

What does this all this have to do with memory?

I spend a lot of time thinking about my memory in the context of retaining the things I read, but as a whole, I think the importance of exercising one's memory is increasingly undervalued in today's world. We don't have to memorize directions anymore - we have GPS devices. No need to memorize a shopping list, or a name or address, or the guitarist in that band, or the setting of that novel. These seem like trivial matters, but trivial matters collectively make up an enormous part of our everyday lives, and for most of these things, we depend on either the internet or other technological tools to do it for us. Memory, just like any other skill, is refined by practice and repetition. To me, dulling our abilities to mentally recall and reproduce would be dulling something that is fundamental to the human experience.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Recipe: Steamed fish and tofu.

It has been quite some time since I've posted a recipe, but my kitchen is busy as always. Despite feeling the onslaught of grad school - classes, teaching, reading papers - I still make sure to eat homemade meals most days of the week.

This dish I made tonight is my mother's recipe, and has always been one of my favorites. It takes the light tastes of fish and tofu, and drizzles it with a bold, spicy sauce. From start to finish, it takes no more than 30 minutes (20 if you're efficient) to get on the table.


microwavable glass or ceramic dish
1 large fillet of tilapia or other white fish (~10 oz)
1 package Japanese-style silken tofu
rice cooking wine
3-4 stalks spring onion, finely chopped
small hot chilis (like serrano), finely chopped
a neutral oil, like canola or vegetable
soy sauce
sesame oil
rice, for serving


1. Thinly slice the fish. Sprinkle with salt and marinate it with rice cooking wine in a bowl.

2. Thinly slice the tofu. Chop onions and chilis.

3. Layer fish and tofu pieces alternately in the microwavable dish. In other words, place pieces of fish-tofu-fish-tofu in a row, and fill up the dish by repeating this way. Place in microwave, and set for 8 minutes. The tofu and fish will steam and cook together.

4. In a small pan, heat the neutral oil, then sautee onions and chillis until soft. Turn off heat. Mix in about half-cup (but I never measure, so use your judgment!) of soy sauce, and a few tablespoons of sesame oil.

5. When tofu and fish are done, drizzle the sauce over. Serve over rice. Goes great with some garlic-sauteed leafy greens.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

How to be happy.

Ten things:

1. Establish playtime, and hold it sacred.
2. Be always engaged. In surroundings, ideas, people.
3. Eat well.
4. Sleep well.
5. Never idle.
6. Read. Read a lot.
7. Don't hoard.
8. Call your parents often.
9. Be good to your friends. Listen to them. Care.

10. Ensure that happiness is an independent pursuit, the responsibility of which is never to be placed in the hands of anyone else but yourself.

These are things I try to remember.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

A sad goodbye to The Minimalist.

I woke up this morning to a flurry of links on my food blogroll pointing to the final post of Mark Bittman's Minimalist column in the New York Times. It was not a pleasant way to wake up. Even I am surprised by how sentimental I'm getting, as I think back to the effect that this single column has had on my cooking history.

The Minimalist was originally called Bitten, and this I started reading when I first started cooking in Australia. They plopped me in the country, gave me a kitchen, and for guidance, I had two resources: the internet and my mother, and my mother was far away. Before I even knew who Mark Bittman was, even before I could cook much of anything at all, I learned from him how to make things like kielbasa and cabbage, cumin-spiced lentils, and roasted eggplant. His recipes were less like recipes and more like outlines, full of opportunities for variation and personal flair. His videos were witty and unpretentious, and stressed the simplicity of the process. The first thing that I ever learned about cooking was that all you need for a good meal are just a few good ingredients, a basic knowledge of what heat does to those ingredients, and a grasp on how tastes and textures blend together. (And above all else, use garlic liberally.)

No exaggeration, it was this blog alone that taught me, crucially, how to cook, not what to cook. A person can follow a million recipes with success, but still fail to understand why, for example, you drizzle sesame oil last or why you shouldn't crowd the pan when browning or why you do one particular step before another.

Sure, I eventually accumulated a dozen more food blogs that I continue to skim every day, but over the years, Bitten (and then The Minimalist) remained the only blog whose every post I would read faithfully and carefully, and that is because of the way it encouraged me to think about food and cooking in holistic and not just functional ways.

I know it's sappy, but I'm going to miss reading the column like I'd miss a friend. Anxiously awaiting something new from Mr. Bittman.

Monday, January 03, 2011


The year, actually the year-and-a-half, was a formative one for me.

I don’t have a philosophy on life, because having a philosophy on life means that you’ve answered life’s important questions, or that you are satisfied with the answers you have.

My ache to travel is because I want to keep asking and keep looking and keep reformulating. What began as a trip about me, about understanding me myself and I – turned into a lesson that there is nothing you can learn about yourself that is not in the context of someone else.

I learned very quickly that the world is not a scary place. It is filled with people who have all the same fundamental human needs, desires, dreams. The most meaningful friendships I made were from people I knew for a day, a week, an hour. There are big things to be learned from the smallest encounters, and each one began with a simple ‘hello’. Distances between people are easily breached. The unfamiliar becomes the familiar.

In the end, most of the attributes that you pride yourself over – no one cares. No one, except you to an obsessive degree, really cares about how funny you are, or how good your grades, or how pretty, or how athletic. The greatest lesson has nothing to do with you. It has everything to do with other people, and how you exist alongside them.

The best decision I made was not just to travel, but to travel alone. It let me fully see that I never once felt alone.

The crucial realization is that I didn't need to travel more than a block to understand this. People relate to each other the same way whether in Cornfield, Indiana or Bhaktapur, Nepal.

I deeply miss my time abroad, but I’m comforted by these lessons that I kept. The new year may not have any more adventures like those of the past year, but I’m going into it with a few more answers.