Thursday, May 27, 2010


Last week, B and I celebrated our third wedding anniversary. And, for the third year in a row, we had a special dinner at Chez Panisse. I think I might say this every year, but I really believe that this was the best dinner we've had there. It was as though all of my springtime favorites were combined in one delicious meal! (Also, the company was very nice.)

Can you read the menu? I'll tell you about the most delicious parts, which were the beginning and the end. We started with a fritto misto of artichokes and asparagus. Wow. Just wow. Who knew that Alice and her chefs knew how to fry so well? The spicy arugula salad and the aioli on the plate cut any heaviness from the fried vegetables. Everything in the middle was delicious too, but we ended with a tartlet filled with strawberry-rhubarb ice cream, and topped with a truly lovely meringue. The "Happy Anniversary" banner you see in the picture adorned our dessert plates. Needless to say, not a speck of food was left on our plates at the end of each course.

Our three years of marriage are only part of the seven years that B and I have been together, and we know each other pretty darn well by now. There was a time when we didn't, however hard that is for us to imagine now. B did not entirely understand my devotion to the culinary arts when we met (though, for the record, I was not nearly as good a cook back then). As I've probably told you before, he described me as being "from scratch" in the kitchen. When we met, I was in medical school, living in an apartment on my own. B, on the other hand, was living and working as a consultant in San Diego, but technically working out of his company's office in San Francisco. This state of affairs meant that he had a per diem allowance, and ate out three meals a day! I preferred (and still prefer, when feasible) to cook three meals a day.

So, one morning when B and I did not know each other very well, I was casting about in the kitchen trying to find something to make for breakfast. I came across some blueberries in the freezer, and asked B how he would feel about having blueberry muffins for breakfast. He agreed that they sounded good. And then, after looking around the kitchen a little more, I reneged on the offer. Why?

We had no lemons to make lemon zest!

Lemon zest is a critical part of the following blueberry muffin recipe. Let's just say that in those few crucial minutes that morning long ago, B had fallen in love with the idea of blueberry muffins for breakfast, and did not entirely understand how lemon zest could be so crucial to their success. And, because B didn't know me very well, he wanted me to still make the muffins without the lemon zest. This did not happen. Though I don't remember what we ended up having to eat that morning, it was NOT blueberry muffins.

I guess I also don't entirely understand why the lemon zest is essential (other than that blueberries and lemons pair beautifully together), but it is. The lemon zest and sugar mixture that tops each muffin becomes a crunchy-sweet component to each bite. The muffins are studded with berries, ensuring fruit in every mouthful. As I alluded to, frozen blueberries work just as well as fresh. There is no need to defrost; however, you must be very careful to mix only as much as needed to fold the frozen berries in, because otherwise you'll end up with batter of an unappetizing gray shade.

Since there's only a half-stick of butter for 12 muffins, I feel no compunction about having mine with a pat on top of each slice, but health-conscious B prefers them plain.

I told B I was going to write about the lemon zest story, and he laughed. I've worked my kitchen magic over the years, and now he understands how important the lemon zest is. Hopefully you'll understand too. Here's to many more zest-filled years together! Enjoy.

Blueberry Muffins
From the Sacramento Bee sometime in the 1970s

Makes: 12 muffins
Time: 15 minutes active, 45 minutes total

zest of 1 lemon
1/2 c. sugar
1 1/2 c. flour
2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. salt
1 egg
1/2 c. milk
1/4 c. (1/2 stick) butter, melted
1 c. blueberries (fresh or frozen)

Preheat the oven to 375, and line 12 muffins cups with muffin liners. In a small bowl, mix together the lemon zest and 2 tablespoons of the sugar. In a medium bowl, mix together the remaining sugar, flour, baking powder, and salt. In another bowl, combine egg, milk, and melted butter. With several quick motions, mix wet ingredients into dry. Fold in blueberries. Drop batter into muffin cups. Sprinkle tops evenly with lemon sugar. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until lightly browned. Serve warm.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

My favorite kind of beer

Third year of medical school is really hard. From the incubated cocoon of the first two years, spent almost entirely in the classroom, one is thrust (without adequate preparation; though in retrospect what really could or would constitute adequate preparation?) into the fast-paced, hospital-based world of the wards. It's pretty different, and I don't like change very much to begin with (though JB probably likes it even less).

I was thinking about third year of med school a lot last month while I was in the ICU at our county hospital. The dearth of new blog posts in April was because the ICU was every bit as busy and tiring as I had thought it might be. (The dearth of blog posts in May has no such reason behind it. Sorry.) Similar to last month, third year of med school is busy and tiring. Instead of having weekends off and knowing what you're supposed to study and know, you are bossed around, unable to make plans because your schedule is no longer your own, and saddled with the realization that you've worked hard for two years but don't know anything about actually taking care of patients. This fugue state ultimately improves, but not without persisting for a while.

On my core general surgery rotation, the second rotation of my medical school career, I learned a lot. First and foremost, I learned how to retract. I learned how to work on a team, or, as my chief put it one time, how to play well in the sandbox. I also learned how to respond to pimping (wishing all the while that I'd paid more attention in gross anatomy), and how to stay up all night (complete with 3am pre-rounding). I even began to learn how to take care of patients. Nonetheless, I frequently came home grumpy, and exhausted, and convinced that I did not want to be a surgeon when I grew up.

My solace during these rough transitional two months? It was simple and delicious and satisfying: root beer floats.

I would come home after a long night, eat some cereal, watch a Tivo'ed "Jeopardy!", and quickly fall asleep on the couch. In the early afternoon, I would wake up starving, and then it was time for a root beer float. I started with two or three scoops of ice cream in a pint glass, and then added some root beer, poured carefully down the side so that it wouldn't get too foamy after mixing with the ice cream. I then slurped some root beer through a straw, ate a few spoonfuls of ice cream, and poured in some more root beer; this regimen was repeated until the glass was empty and my belly was full. I drank enough floats that I even bought reusable, dishwasher-safe straws to decrease the waste.

Little did I know what a transformative rotation surgery would end up being. I started a number of post-call traditions during those two months, including the "Jeopardy!" and the couch-sleeping. The afternoon root beer floats, though initially popular, fell by the wayside about a year later, well before I started residency and its plethora of long nights in the hospital.

Only recently (with B's assistance) did I realize why I stopped drinking floats: the summer following my surgery rotation brought the delivery of our ice cream machine. Though the advent of the ice cream machine brought many new and delicious flavors into our freezer, making vanilla seemed, well, too vanilla. Why not make salted caramel? Or fig? Or mint chocolate chip? They were quick variations on the vanilla base, and seemed a little more special than a flavor so easily available at the grocery store. And so, without vanilla ice cream at hand in the freezer, root beer floats quickly became a distant memory.

Thank goodness, then, for the ICU-induced stress so reminiscent of third-year medical school. Without it, I would never have come back to root beer floats. I don't think they need homemade ice cream to be delicious, but they definitely need top-notch root beer. While my family used to be IBC die-hards, we have since moved to the Virgil's camp. The best price and availability are at Trader Joe's.

I don't think this post will convince anyone to go to medical school (it's not that bad, really, I swear), but maybe it'll convince some of you to try root beer floats again. They're not just for kids, and they sure do hit the spot when you come home from the hospital after a long day or night. Enjoy!

Root Beer Float
Time: 5 minutes active and total

3 scoops of high-quality vanilla ice cream (you can make your own, or use a premium brand like Haagen-Dazs)
12-oz bottle of cold root beer (Virgil's is my favorite)

In a pint glass or tall soda glass, place three scoops of ice cream. Add root beer slowly, down the side of the glass, to avoid foaming. Serve with a long spoon, a straw, and the bottle with any remaining root beer.