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One must travel with radishes

September 7, 2011

When you travel by yourself there is nobody to tell you that there is chocolate all over your face. Then again, beyond the customs agents, there’s really nobody to impress. Take that, personal hygiene. I’m currently sitting at the Schipol-Amsterdam (I whisper this to myself as “hamsterdam” and then smile at the thought of hundreds of hamsters clattering over the cobblestones in wooden shoes), nursing my third cocoa-powdered cappuccino, desperately trying to stay awake long enough to board my connecting flight to Berlin.
When you travel by yourself, you also – or at least I do – cultivate all sorts of little rituals to maintain order and stability in your world. Partly because I have a history of missing flights and partly because I find arithmetic soothing, I am constantly doing time-change math in my head (Mom and Dad are minus eight hours, friends in Helsinki are plus one, everyone in New York City freaking out about the hurricane are minus six, etc.). Also, there is the hourly check to confirm I have indeed packed both my European computer and phone cords. I try to also make a habit of both walking to very end of my terminal (every terminal if there’s time) as well as checking the souvenir shops for items shaped like robots. Had a big win here at Schipol – robot tea holder, robot ice/candy molds, and robot egg holder (with wheels). I decided to walk away from the robot salt and pepper shakers, though. As science fiction warns us, robots can become a strange and expensive obsession. 
And then there are the radishes. One must always travel with radishes. Between their crunch and their peppery bite, radishes are a refreshing alternative to the circulated air of planes and musty smell of the U-bahns. I eat them on toast with butter and salt. Or plain. Or with that Mediterranean yogurt-cheese. Is this strange? I don’t even know anymore. I’ve made up some pretty odd concoctions and then put them in my mouth. There is a wonderful book by Jenni Ferrari-Adler (“Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant”) about the weird, go-to meals we eat when we’re alone. Cream cheese on graham crackers is better than you think. There, I said it.
My first summer after beginning college – so, the first time living alone and without a dorm meal plan – I taught myself to cook. Once I mastered the task of boiling water, my ambition began to flag, so I mostly ate cooked pasta tossed with uncooked vegetables of various sorts. I refined this to a very refreshing raw tomato and garlic sauce and was both proud and embarrassed of my crude little obsession. So I felt vindicated a few weeks ago when a fancier version was being touted in the “Recipes for Health” section of The New York Times. The weird dish I couldn’t bear to cook for others sounds so sophisticated when called “salsa crudo.”  So, here it is, my version of pasta with salsa crudo, baked ricotta, and green beans. To be eaten when alone when you can be as weird as you want.
Note: I’d like to point out that the rambling nature of this piece is a direct consequence of the fact that I have been sitting, in either a glass box or a metal tube, often without sleep, always without good in-flight entertainment, for upwards of 18 hours now and not a sign of a declining ability to present clear and rational discussion. At least, I hope not.
 
Pasta with salsa crudo, baked ricotta, and green beans
Serves 4
Time: 45 minutes, mostly active
1 lb. ricotta
3 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
8 thyme sprigs, plus 1 teaspoon of leaves
3/4 lb. tomatoes
1-2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 teaspoon balsalmic or sherry vinegar
~6 oz. green beans
3/4 lb. shaped pasta that will catch sauce (orecchiette, penne, fusilli, or farfalle)
2 Tablespoons basil leaves, cut into slivers
salt and pepper
u Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. If the ricotta is very moist, set to drain in a paper towel-lined colander. Lightly oil a 2-3 cup baking dish and spread the ricotta inside evenly. Brush the top with more olive oil and scatter the top with thyme sprigs and several grinds of freshly ground pepper. Bake uncovered until lightly golden on top and pulling away from the sides, about 45 minutes. When finished, pour off any milky residue and scatter the remaining thyme leaves on top. Let it cool for 10 minutes before cutting into squares or crumbling. You will end up with more than you need for this dish but while baked ricotta is best fresh from the oven, I find I end up nibbling on leftovers or adding them to salads or pizza later in the week.
u While the ricotta is baking, heat a large pot of water. Cut the tomatoes in half across and either scrape out and mash the contents with a fork in a bowl or grate them on the large holes of a box grater. Stir in the garlic, a generous dash of salt and pepper, the vinegar and olive oil.
u When the water is boiling, add salt and the green beans. Parboil for about 4 minutes then put them in a bowl of cool water to stop cooking then pat dry. Add the pasta to the boiling bean water. While the pasta is cooking, cut the beans to bite-sized lengths and add to the bowl of salsa crudo.
u Cook the pasta until al dente then drain and toss with the beans and salsa crudo then sprinkle with the basil and crumbled baked ricotta (1/2-3/4 cup). Serve.
 
Alix Hui is an assistant professor of history at Mississippi State University. Email her at alixhui@gmail.com.

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