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Butternut squash fusilli and cheese

It seems appropriate to resurrect this blog right after Halloween. Actually, I refuse to believe that November is here and I’m smothering my denial under lots and lots of crappy Netflix horror movies. 2015 went by too quickly, so let’s let fall sleep in and drink too much coffee in bed before it turns into winter.

We had our third annual (not much of a record yet, but I’m not planning to stop it anytime soon) Halloween party last weekend, and lots of friends raved over this bastardized, butternut riff on mac and cheese, enough to make me get over my laziness and post it here for the world (or just handful of people) to see. I might even make this for Thanksgiving again because it was that good. Enjoy!

(P.S. my recipe makes 8ish servings, so feel free to halve…although leftovers are killer).

(P.P.S. adapted from Pinch of Yum, whose recipes never work for me, but this one kept me from unsubscribing!, and Blue Apron)

Ingredients

1 large butternut squash

2 large yellow onions

500g fusilli pasta (I used this bronze stuff to which sauce is supposed to..adhere better. Let’s ignore the grammar of that phrase and get to the recipe already)

4 tablespoons salted butter (Kerrygold fo’ life!)

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil (plus more, for drizzling over the squash)

1 tablespoon light brown muscovado sugar

2 tablespoons plain white flour

2 cups whole milk

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

paprika-salt (or paprika and sea salt)

salt and pepper

2 cups extra mature cheddar, shredded (shred your own, don’t buy the pre-shredded stuff, which is good for nachos but not much else)

Instructions

Preheat oven to 400F.

  1. Cook the noodles a few minutes less than package directions (which for me was 9 minutes rather than the recommended 12). Drain and set aside.
  2. Heat 1 tablespoon of butter and the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Peel and cut the onions in half, and then slice each half into thin slices. Add them, along with the brown sugar and a pinch of salt, to the pan, sautéing over low heat until fragrant and golden, about 20-30 minutes. If the onions stick, add a splash of water.
  3. Meanwhile, peel the squash and remove the guts. Curse a little, because preparing butternut squash is the worst. Remind yourself of the end goal. Continue.
  4. Cut the squash into small 1-inch cubes. Place squash on parchment-lined baking sheet and coat with olive oil. Sprinkle with paprika salt (or, paprika and salt, if you don’t have 500 salt mixes like I do). Roast until soft and a bit caramelized, about 40 minutes.
  5. Just before the squash is done roasting (lots of multi-tasking!), heat the remaining butter in the saucepan. Add flour and stir until the flour dissolved and it smells toasty (about a minute). Whisk in the milk until lump-free. Stir in a cup of cheese and about half of the squash, and blend with an immersion blender. If you don’t have one of those, buy one. Or use a food processor, at your own risk, and preferably after the sauce has cooled a little.
  6. In a 9 x 13-inch pan lined with aluminum foil, throw in your pasta and remaining squash cubes together. Add the caramelized onions. Add the sauce, spreading it around to cover the top of your creation.
  7. Sprinkle with remaining cup of cheddar cheese and cover the thing in aluminum foil. Bake for 15 minutes, uncover, and bake 5 more minutes to get the top nice and crispy.

Marrakech: Day 3

By Monday, I’d recovered enough to make a more adventurous trek around the city. Scouring travel websites and blogs while bedridden the day before, I found myself interested in hiring a tour guide for a few hours to gain an insider’s perspective of the city (and honestly, to help navigate the maze of the souks). I came across this post and was intrigued by the custom experiences that Khadija offers, so I sent her an email on Sunday night with a plea to show us Marrakech from a local woman’s view.

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I woke up far too early (for a vacation schedule – 8 am) on Monday morning, and as luck would have it, Khadija had written back to me with a few ideas (and links to blog posts) on what she could offer. My wish list included a trip to the Jardin Majorelle, the Medersa Ben Youssef, and of course, some shopping. I added that this would probably be too ambitious for an afternoon tour, and wrote that I’d appreciate anything and everything she could show us.

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(Photo courtesy of Khadija – she has a great eye!)

We started off in the Jardin Majorelle, and I immediately felt like an impoverished student in my jeans and sneakers and gigantic Trader Joe’s tote, next to the glamorous guide. It turns out she often shows diplomats around, speaks at worldwide events (on what it’s like to be a Moroccan woman in a sort-of-Arab, sort-of-not culture – far more complicated than I can explain, I’m sure), and has given tours to the likes of Gorbachev and his daughter, and Tom Cruise’s family (and now us).

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(Khadija gave the designer Fendi a tour, and he was apparently inspired to use the above color combination in one of his handbags. Fancy!)

Our guide gave us wonderful insight on things we wouldn’t have learned on our own (or, at least without hours of research) such as why everything in the gardens was this vibrant shade of blue (I don’t remember), why Berber is sort of a derogatory term for the indigenous people of the country (hint: the fact that it’s so similar to “Barbarian” is not a coincidence), and why you should always bargain for at least 1/3 off of the asking price of anything (probably because they mark it up 1/3 for tourists, in hindsight).

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The next stop was the Medersa Ben Youssef, the largest Islamic college in Morocco (thanks Wikipedia) and now a historic site. The architecture was stunning and the quiet, shaded courtyard provided a welcome relief from the afternoon shopping crowds.

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Somehow, we managed to check off everything on my list, and more – we met wonderful shop owners, stopped by a diasbled women’s collective that sold handmade bags and other cloth items (I picked up a bracelet and tea cozy shaped like a chicken – you know, something every Moroccan tea pot needs around its handle).

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(This was an unexpected detour between shops – we got to see the communal oven where families bring their dough to be baked into bread. What a nice idea).

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John talked me into buying a rug — sorry, not a mere “carpet,” as our salesman stated, but a “piece of art.” To his credit, all of the rugs were beautiful and unique, and once we take ours out of its carefully protected package, I’m sure we will treasure it for the rest of our lives. Or at least until the cat destroys it.

Khadija dropped us off at the “Big Square,” the place you read about in every other article about Marrakech. This is the famous marketplace with its snake charmers, monkeys for sale, vendors hawking freshly squeeze orange juice side by side in neat little rows. Her parting words were something about not taking our health for granted, and wishing us luck three times in a row. Honestly, I don’t remember what she said because the whole day had been a little overwhelming in terms of its sheer beauty, sights and sounds (and flavors at the terrific Terasse des Epices in the spice market). The luck stayed with us, though, particularly as my bike was stolen (and recovered by my neighbor) the following day at home. And when we somehow got a free checked bag on the way back to London. But another instance of luck, not to be overlooked by the more dramatic examples, was simply the experience we’d been given that day and the memories we’ll carry with us far beyond those five days in Morocco.

Coming up: a day in Essaouria, the white city, the fishing port, and the backdrop to Game of Thrones Season 3!

A Week in the Life of a Temp

This is the first Friday afternoon I’ve had to myself in over a week, and I never thought I’d miss it so much. That’s right– I’m finally bringing home the bacon again. Or rather, enough bacon (money) to cover my ridiculous (dry-cured, unsmoked, streaky) bacon purchasing habit.

I did a bit of freelance stuff earlier, but love getting to call it a day at 4:30. And taking too many breaks to do important things, like re-hang laundry that blew away in the wind, listen to RIlo Kiley, eat waffles, and not eat the vegetables I bought at the Headington farmers’ market.

I’ve been temping at a field marketing agency for a little over a week now, with a contract that’s very much up in the air (originally stated as 1-2 weeks). My first day, I was thrown to the wolves (that’s a saying, right?) and hit the phones with little idea of what I was doing. But working alongside a very friendly and supportive team, I picked up quite a bit of knowledge very quickly. Probably more quickly than at any other job. It’s a recruiting gig, so we are screening CV’s with quickie phone interviews to find suitable candidates for face-to-face interviews. The roles I’m recruiting for are not at all glamorous (or maybe they are, depending on your interests): cigarette salespeople and holiday-season alcohol merchandising. A friend asked if I have a moral objection to this, and I almost felt bad saying no. It’s a job to be filled, and someone will do it, and it’s not really up to me to judge.

The most surprising (and difficult) thing I’ve learned: people lie. Although I’m pretty sarcastic and at times pessimistic, I still hold out great hope for people and don’t understand when they do something wrong. Let’s not mention that I do things wrong all the time, but I do try to be honest. Anyway, one guy told me he’s had a passion for [cigarette brand] since age 17, and has wanted to work for this company forever, etc. And I thought, “sure, why not?” The next day, my boss helped me see why this guy was clearly bullshitting me.

Also, people like to ramble. I don’t mind listening to people talk, but have really had to take control of the conversation on too many occasions, which I find challenging. “Okay, when exactly was that?” “Sorry, let me rephrase the question.” I’ve also learned the difference between great answers, okay answers, and just plain terrible answers. It’s a good skill that I’ll use in my future interviews (e.g. the one coming up on Monday, for a 3-month admin job), but it’s difficult not being able to get back to the applicants and tell them how they could improve next time. I think most of them probably could, if they stopped trying so hard to answer with what they think we want to hear, and just think about the questions logically.

And sure, I do find it a little ironic that I’m screening job applications while I’ve been unable to find a steady job myself for a few months. There are a few differences, though: 1.) I don’t have children or a house, and therefore am not desperate for cash, 2.) I want to be a little more selective in whatever I do next, because we spend a lot of our time at work and…well, I’m idealistic and really want to do something I feel good about. I know this is a pretty high expectation and I’ll probably have to compromise a bit, eventually. 3.) I actually read the job descriptions. Final lesson learned in the past week: some people honestly just hit the “apply” button hundreds of times in a day, and then have no idea why you’re calling them regarding their interest in the role.

There are lots of other temps at this company. I guess it makes sense, since the work is fairly easy and doesn’t require much training, or long-term commitment. It’s been really great to interact with new people, and I love finding out more about where they come from, why they’re here, and what drives them. One guy owns his own business, which he’s building up on the side, and another woman was a former marketing manager, who’s having trouble finding work after taking a break to raise her child. And even my “boss” has faced the same post-interview rejections as I have– “we think you’d be bored at this job and need more responsibility.” Many employers talk about work-life balance, but I’m not convinced they know what it actually means.

Enough rants– the sun is still shining, and because I’m actually home instead of being stuck on the bus for another hour, I think I’ll go for a run.

P.S. I scribbled down some notes on the aforementioned bus that I wanted to share:

1. I always thought the “Martin’s” down the street from me, a newsagent, was owned by a guy named Martin. But there’s a Martin’s in Thame, so I suppose it’s a chain. I feel deceived by the mom-and-pop feel, and am glad I never called the owner Martin.

2. There’s a barbershop called Sherlock Combs in Thame. I don’t think I need to say anything else here, but I am thinking of sending them some fanmail.

3. Riding the bus makes me feel sick (probably because I read every.single.time, throwing motion-sickness caution to the wind), but I do love looking out the window at the beautiful countryside. Sometimes, I pretend I live out there, with a few chickens and a garden. Then I remember that I have a black thumb and would have to clean chicken poop, and come back to reality.

Recent Musings

I’m still fighting off the last lovely symptoms of my lingering cold, which has been going strong now for over a week. I can’t decide if it’s the sickness that makes me more prone to melancholy and general laziness, or the fact that I just came back from a really nice 2+ week vacation (Germany solo, and then Oxford/Bath/Windsor with my mom and grandmother). Both of those scenarios (being sick, and post-vacation blues) are probably compounding to set the stage for a really whiny blog post. Enjoy!

As much as I pretend my job rejections aren’t getting to me, and as much as I tell myself that I didn’t want those entry-level admin positions anyway, well…that’s a lie. It’s difficult to swallow constructive criticism like, “Clea interviewed very well and is personable and wonderful and blah blah blah BUT her confidence wavered on this meaningless Excel-wizardry task and sales presentation and she did not do as well as expected.” It’s the “as expected” that really gets to me, because I don’t like disappointing people. It tells me that I didn’t live up to some inflated expectation that my CV seems to imply.

It also comes at a sharp contrast to my rejection from this morning, “Clea did well…so much so, that we think this entry-level job would not be the right role…she would be suited to a role with more responsibility.” Maybe I’m alone in this, but what if I don’t want more responsibility? “Responsibility” promises creativity, independence, and productivity, but too often ends up delivering headaches, blame, and unnecessary burdens. Why won’t you just let me do meaningless paperwork and leave at 5 o’clock? Okay, I’m starting to annoy myself, so enough of that.

I think my general dissatisfaction with the job market is starting to bleed over into the kitchen, too. I’ve made some pretty terrible creations recently: applesauce that tastes 100% like cloves and nothing else, bread that somehow remained gummy and moist and not in a good way, a pucker-y apple crisp that overdosed on lemon juice, and forgotten caramelized onions that burnt the bottom of my pot to a nice, charred crisp.

On that note, we’re going out to dinner– I’m handing over the responsibility of a good meal to hands more capable than mine. But before that, I’m going to get out of my pajamas, out of the house, and out of this self-imposed rut.

Zora

A few months after moving in together in 2008, in our derelict one-bedroom on Spring Garden above our basement-dwelling neighbor who yelled sporadically throughout the day and night, John and I decided to get a cat. She favored men (and therefore John), but was snuggly enough with me too, and instantly made our apartment feel more like a home.

I didn’t want to write about this, but I’m weak when it comes to dealing with death, and getting it all out in a poorly-edited blog post is better than mentioning it in passing to friends and family. Maybe this way, I can warn you what not to say (“I’m sorry” – honestly, does this ever make anyone feel better? And what do I even say in response…”it’s okay?”) Maybe this way, I can be a little more eloquent in sharing what she meant to me, because in person, I’ll just grumble about cars speeding on our road and say I knew it was coming, eventually. I did know, but knowing doesn’t do anything to prepare you for the inevitable.

John and I had just finished breakfast on Monday, the day after I got back from a week in Nurnberg and dropped my grandmother and mom off at the guest house. I was drinking Wawa’s Pumpkin Spice coffee and thinking back to when John and I would get in our car and drive the half-mile to the gas station for our daily fall fix. Then, our neighbor knocked at the door.

“Is this your cat?”

I’d sort of written her off as a crazy cat lady, as her backyard (visible from our house) is always a mess, and she always has strays roaming around. But when I saw how upset she was, holding a limp and lifeless Zora in her hands, I realized that I’m a crazy cat lady too, and in no place to judge. Zora was always running into the street, with her no-fear attitude and penchant for rolling around on the curb and getting dirty in the sunshine. I don’t know how many times I heard cars honking, thinking “shit, Zora,” and shaking my head in disapproval at her careless behavior. But, she’s a cat, and she was never happy cooped up in our tiny flat. We knew we were taking a risk letting her roam outside, but her palpable happiness as she pranced around in the garden, and on that busy street, somehow made it worth it. At least that’s what I’m telling myself, to avoid playing “What if?” over and over in my head and wishing we kept her confined to our small quarters.

I want to fast forward a few months, hoping to lighten this burden, this loss. There’s nothing I can do to feel better right now, and it’s hard, and it sucks. That’s about as eloquent as I can be. I’ve lost pets before, and I know others who have shared this experience can relate (what a weird concept, by the way- losing a person or animal. I didn’t misplace them; they died).

Maybe I can just take comfort in knowing that everything dies eventually, or breaks, and that fact doesn’t take away the good memories that were created along the way. Zora was family, and I’ll always miss her, but I’m glad we had 6 years together. They were good ones.

1 Month of Unemployment

It’s been one month since I stopped getting a paycheck and started getting my life back (slight exaggeration). I thought I might have a job again by now, but that would have required a little more enthusiasm (and lying) during my many rounds of interviews. I also thought I might be bored by now. It’s actually nice to be wrong on both counts.

Sure, I didn’t get the job I actually wanted, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t still slightly bitter about it. But I don’t believe in fate, or even one right path, so I trust that something good will come along eventually. Or at least something tolerable. I feel very different from my friends (at least the rose-tinted view I gain through Facebook), most of whom are climbing up the career ladder and/or working in a field that actually interests them. Occasionally, I do feel like I’m just aimlessly floating around, as I still have no clue what I actually want to be when I “grow up.” When I start feeling sorry for myself, though, I remember that I’m pretty damn lucky to be here in Oxford, having adventures with John and meeting some wonderful people along the way. Life, to me, has always been about more than a good career. Life is what happens beyond the 9-5 (or 9-8 — I still don’t understand why people stay at work later than they are obligated to, without extra pay. But that’s another story).

Where was I going with this? Oh, right. I thought I might be bored by now. John thought I’d be bored by now, too. Yet every day still feels different, special, full of opportunity. It’s not all glamour – some days I don’t brush my teeth ’til after dinner, and stay in my pajamas all day (lovely, I know). Luckily, those days are rare. I try to get outside as much as I can, exploring the familiar and unfamiliar corners of my neighborhood and the city. I move a little slower, soaking it in. I read, cook, play with my cats, do yoga, half-heartedly apply for jobs, meditate, write a bit. There’s a routine to it, I guess, but it feels different from the “work” routine.

Soon, I’ll get back to that, and I’ll appreciate getting paid, and hopefully doing some good work that contributes to mankind (or at least a friendly, smart team of people). In the meantime, I’m enjoying this time for what it is- a chance to step back, reflect, and grow in small, personal ways. When I look back in a few years, or even months, I’ll be glad that I had this room and space between jobs. I’m lucky that my cheapskate ways have let me save up a bit of cash and I’m not desperate for whatever comes next. Very lucky.

Next week, it’s off to Germany, and then my mom and Oma are coming to Oxford. Can’t wait to show them our little (and I do mean little) abode, and the stunning city I currently call home.

The thrilling conclusion to Birthday (Cake) Week

Despite the Great Flapjack Failure of 2014, I gave browned butter another try. I’m glad I did, because this is probably the best muffin I’ve made so far. It required grinding oats and buckwheat (separately) in my gigantic, 80s-era food processor, definitely a more labor-intensive process than I’m used to. And of course, I burnt the butter, but luckily it still all worked out. The chocolate chips and streusel topping take it over the top, and the banana and healthy flours make it acceptable for breakfast (or lunch, or pre-lunch…in my case a few minutes ago).

The extravagance of the week though was these red velvet brownies. Next time (if I trust myself enough for there to be a next time), I’ll stick to the recipe as is and maybe make the annoying buttercream frosting. Buttercream is my nemesis, mainly because I don’t have the right tools (and by extension, the right kitchen) to tackle it. This time, I tried to make a cream cheese topping from a recipe via the Food Network, which I won’t link to because it was a complete disaster. My “swirl” was a runny mess, probably because I used store-brand cream cheese, which just didn’t have the thickness required here. Also, it tasted kind of bland, so I dumped in a bunch of extra sugar. After trying to “swirl” it into the brownies, I ended up with a hilarious, runny mess. So, I attempted to salvage it by pouring the topping back into a bowl…which I mixed with powdered sugar, and which we’ve been pouring over yogurt and granola as a consolation prize.

Luckily, the brownies still turned out, probably more fudgy (fudgey?) than intended, but that’s never a bad thing. The birthday boy and guests at last night’s dinner seemed to like them. I did too, although too many bowl-licks and “cutting off just this one piece to make a perfect square” tastes left me feeling terrible. Seriously, baked goods are my kryptonite. So I’m calling a moratorium on the sweets for a while. Well, making them myself, anyway. Ice cream will find its way into my mouth sooner or later, mainly as an act of desperation to hang on to this rapidly disappearing summer.