Friday, December 26, 2008


This is good, makes a lot, and doesn't even require fake meat. It's from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison (edited slightly, in parentheses, by me). I added links for those of us who don't know how to cook.

Summer Spaghetti (Pasta) with Corn and Tomatoes
  • 12 ounces corn-flour or regular spaghetti (smaller pasta, I think, works better than spaghetti). Be sure not to overcook.
  • salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 2 tablespoons corn oil (or vegetable/safflower/whatever oil, except olive) or butter
  • 1 bunch scallions, including half of the greens, chopped
  • 2 cups corn kernels, from 3 ears of corn (or 1 can or box of frozen corn)
  • 1 bell pepper, any color (not green), diced (and seeded)
  • 1 jalapeno, seeded(*) and diced
  • 3 tomatoes, halved, seeded and diced
  • 1/2 cup cilantro, chopped (I don't like cilantro, so I don't use any, and it's just fine)
  • 2 ounces queso fresco or feta
  • 1 lime, quartered

Cook the pasta in plenty of salted, boiling water until al dente (use cooking time indicated on package). Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large skillet (something deep like this, not just a frying pan) and add the scallions, corn, bell pepper, and chile (I add the scallions and pepper first, so they cook longer and aren't so strong). Saute over high heat for 3 minutes, then add the tomatoes, most of the cilantro, and a ladle of the pasta water. Season with 1/2 teaspoon salt and a little pepper and turn the heat to low. Drain the pasta, shaking off the excess water. Add it to the vegetables and toss well. Divide among pasta plates, crumble the cheese over the top, and add the remaining cilantro. Serve with a wedge of lime.

(* cut out the white parts and seeds. See link for bell pepper seeding.)

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Thursday, December 18, 2008

New Music Recommendations

Some more songs I've been listening to recently:
  • Blitzen Trapper: "Furr"
    NPR's All Songs Considered compared this song to "'39" by Queen, and it does have some similarities (listen when the bass drum comes in).
  • Fleet Foxes: "Winter White Hymnal"
    Sweet vocal harmonies and excellent songwriting. Their album is on my Christmas wishlist, and has appeared on several year-end top 10 lists.
  • The Decemberists: "Valerie Plame" and "Days of Elaine"
    Two upbeat tracks from their singles collection "Always the Bridesmaid". "Valerie Plame" even has a bit of a "Hey Jude" thing going on. This definitely makes "Hazards of Love" one of my most anticipated releases of 2009 (which, along with Neko Case's "Middle Cyclone", appears conveniently in time for my birthday wishlist).
  • Music Go Music: "Reach Out"
    I'm not a big fan of 80's music, but this band takes all the clichees about it and combines it into songs that are so over the top, they're good.
  • Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela: "Mambo" (Leonard Bernstein)
    Dudamel is the biggest rising star in the classical music conducters' scene, and judging from the energy this orchestra has under him, that's fully justified.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Christmas Decorations

A good thing: In Florence, people don't put up Christmas decorations until the end of November. And you don't have to hear Christmas music coming from every store all the time for two or three months.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Weather

We seem to have entered the rainy season here. It’s rained almost every day for a month.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Afternoon in the City

This afternoon, we went downtown for a chamber music concert at the Teatro della Pergola, an old theater/opera house. The program included Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, and even though the advertised clarinetist Karl-Heinz Steffens was replaced with Eduard Brunner, the concert was still well played and enjoyable. Afterward, we walked to the Piazza Santa Croce, where the “Heidelberg Christmas Market” has been going on. It’s actually more of a European Christmas market, with stands selling French Christmas cookies, Austrian strudel, Dutch cheese, Hungarian sweets, among others. Well, and German Glühwein of course.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Rome - Day 3

Our last day in Rome was both a Monday and a religious holiday, a rather bad combination. Mondays, all the state museums are closed, and on religious holidays, churches have services and are therefore not open for sightseeing. So we started the day with a trip to the cemetery beneath the Chiesa Santa Maria della Concezione, which has been decorated by the Capuchin monks with the bones of their deceased brothers (we first saw this on Globetrekker). From there, it was only a short walk to the Spanish Steps, which were in the process of being decorated since the pope was scheduled to appear there later in the day. Walking on, we passed through some of the most expensive shopping streets in Rome to get to the Trevi fountain. Since at this point all the churches we wanted to visit (including the Pantheon, which is now a church) had mass in them, we then went to the Baths of Caracalla, a bit south of the center.
These were truly impressive ruins, and showed the giant scale of the buildings of ancient Rome. Some of the original mosaic floors were still in place (the second story had long since collapsed, but that floor was also on display in fragments). We took the bus back to the city, where our last attempt at seeing the Pantheon was foiled by its limited opening hours on public holidays. After walking back to the Campo de’ Fiori we made our way to the Teatro di Marcello, a Roman theatre on top of which apartments were built in the 16th century. Finally, we took the bus back to the train station, near our hotel. Since we still had a little time left, we wanted to see the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore with some 5th century mosaics. However, once there we discovered that the Madonna of Lourdes was there for the weekend, and that the Adoration of the Madonna was currently in progress. Still, we went into the church (there were plenty of people coming and going), and at least caught a glimpse of the mosaics. Then we got our luggage from the hotel and took the train (this time the fast one) back to Florence.
All in all, three days is far too little for a city with a rich history like Rome (‘Roma – non basta una vita!’). I’m sure we’ll be back to see the Sistine Chapel, the Via Appia Antica, the Villa Borghese, the Pantheon, and all of the other sights we weren’t able to see this time.

Rome - Day 2

The next day we decided to dedicate to ancient Rome. We started out at the Colosseum, where after a bit of initial confusion, we were able to pass by most of the crowds at the admission booth with our Roma Pass (good value). It was fun seeing a place in real life that I had so far been familiar with mostly through the Asterix comics. One of the things that astounded me was that the Colosseum, as well as most of the other buildings in the area, were all brick. I had always pictured large amounts of marble (probably because of the marble columns) being used. Of course, having invented cement, it makes sense for the Romans to use brick, but it was something slightly unexpected. Next up was the Palatine Hill, residence of several Roman emperors, now in ruins of course. One of the houses of Augustus has been partly restored, so we were able to see some of the original wall frescoes. Apparently, the Domus Aurea of Nero is quite a bit more impressive, but unfortunately that has very limited opening hours.
From there, we wandered through the Roman Forum with its overabundance of ruins. At this point, we were quite hungry, so we got some sandwiches for lunch and then continued our sightseeing activities. After a quick look in the Mamertine prison, where St. Peter was supposedly imprisoned, and the famous Bocca della Verità, we crossed the Tiber and walked through Trastevere, a blue collar neighborhood currently undergoing gentrification, to the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere.
There, we admired the gilded 12th century mosaics, before heading back into the city. By this time, it had gotten dark, so we finished the day in the Capitoline Museum, where there is a large collection of Roman sculpture and other art.
Dinner was at a pleasant enough restaurant on the Campo de’ Fiori.

Rome - Day 1

Last weekend was a long one in Italy (Monday was the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, a holiday in catholic Italy), so we decided to take advantage and spend some time in Rome. Unfortunately, most of Italy seemed to be on the road this weekend as well, so when we tried to buy train tickets on Friday, the fast trains were already sold out. Therefore, we had to take the local train on Saturday morning, which took four hours instead of the one and a half non-stop with the Eurostar.
Nevertheless, after getting into Rome and checking into our hotel, we were ready for some sightseeing, for which we took the bus across town to St. Peter’s basilica. On the square in front, the Christmas tree was being raised, and after waiting in the security line for a while, we went into the cathedral. What’s most impressive about the church is surely the size – apart from a Michelangelo statue, there’s not too much in terms of art inside.
Afterwards, Kristen waited for me while I climbed up to the dome for some spectacular views of the city. After weeks of rain, it had stopped and the city looked great in the late afternoon winter light.
From there, we walked into the city. On a bridge across the Tiber, we watched swarms of songbirds flying around, making patterns in the sky. It was incredible how many birds there were and how in unison their flying patterns were.

Finally, we wandered through the streets to the Piazza Navona, where we unexpectedly found a Christmas market between the three baroque fountains of the piazza. Nearby, the Pantheon was closed for a Saturday evening mass, so we went back to the hotel for a while before heading out again for an excellent pasta dinner (Kristen had gnocchi with a gorgonzola and pear sauce, I had maccheroni all’amatriciana).

Tuesday, December 2, 2008


Saturday evening, we saw a production of "Siegfried" at the Teatro Comunale here in Florence. I had previously seen "Das Rheingold" in Mannheim, and together we had seen a fantastic "Die Walküre" at the National Opera in Washington DC, so this was the next part in the "Ring des Nibelungen" cycle. The production was a cooperation with the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia Valencia, and was conducted by Zubin Mehta, who had also conducted the free concert of Beethoven's Ninth this summer. Interestingly, the production was designed by La Fura dels Baus, a Catalan theater troupe (who also worked on an opera production in Mannheim a few years back, which I did not attend though). I guess Siegfried followed their usual aesthetic. Though I usually prefer modern productions (often it's the traditional ones that are a bit tiring), I felt that this one went a bit over the top. There were several large monitors/screens that provided the scenery and which could be moved around. While not a bad idea, the fact that there was always something playing on these, in combination with the many silent actors onstage (oftentimes unnecessarily -- people being hung upside down on meathooks during the question and answer part between Mime and Wotan in the first act?) made it seem like the staging was for people with ADD. It was simply too busy. (Some pictures of the production can be found here.) The singers were mostly good, with the standout performance for me being Ulrich Ress as Mime as well as Jennifer Wilson as Brünnhilde. Leonid Zakhozhaev gave a decent Siegfried, though somewhat weak in the forging song at the end of the first act, and with a rather bad accent that prevented me from understanding most of what he was singing (unfortunate when the subtitles are in Italian). Apparently, the role of Siegfried can be an unforgiving one, so I'll let that pass and hope for some improvement when "Götterdämmerung" comes to town next May.


On Sunday, we had our belated Thanksgiving dinner -- any holiday that consists mostly of eating should be embraced. I was able to find turkey at the Mercato Centrale, where I got a 5.8 kg bird (almost 13 pounds), and after searching several stores, we were even able to find cranberries. We had invited one of my labmates and his girlfriend, but they unfortunately had to cancel on Sunday afternoon because of illness. Since the turkey was already in the oven at that point, we had to scramble to make other plans. Luckily, two of Kristen's classmates were able to join us on short notice and help us eat the mounds of food. In addition to turkey and gravy, we had cranberry stuffing, mashed potatoes, green beans, cranberry sauce, and for dessert pumpkin pie. Since then, it's been turkey for at least two meals a day... plain leftovers, turkey sandwiches and turkey soup so far, and who knows what next (I'm thinking maybe turkey fajitas?).

Monday, December 1, 2008

Messiah Organist on Crack

While on the subject of Christmas music, here's a holiday favorite.

Seen on The Rest is Noise.