Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Retreat to the kitchen

Delicata hummus
Starting to write a dissertation is no straightforward thing. You can be lost for weeks and not know it. And the advice you tend to get, while sometimes painfully obvious, is still hard to follow. I've been feeling shrunken, scared, and incapable lately. I've been wondering whether in fact I really belong here. And though I've been told that this phase of grad school is like this for lots of people, trying to push through it all, to actually believe in myself, has been hard. Sometimes, it's just been easier to retreat to the kitchen.
Still, I haven't allowed myself to take on anything too consuming. Spending time on something extravagant--a layer cake, another batch of preserves--would at this point, I think, just leave me guilt-stricken. So, I've stuck mostly to simple things, things to help keep me humming through the day, like this sunny delicata-squash hummus.
Ready for poaching Roasted squash Dark edges
Though I spend most mornings at my desk--typing, cursing, thumbing through books--I usually find myself desperately hungry a couple of hours after breakfast, no matter what I eat. So, almost inevitably, I drop what I'm doing, tear through the cupboards, and find a bag of something salty and satisfying to mindlessly crunch my way through. I am never at my best when hungry.
Having a jar of delicata hummus around has helped. Its mellow, nutty sweetness, which gives way to a lingering serrano-kissed heat, is worth slowing down for, worth savouring. So it at least makes for more mindful snacking. I often spread it just as it is on crackers or toasted baguette. But it takes well to being gussied up too. A dab of Greek yogurt tames its heat and adds welcome acidity. A drizzle of maple syrup brings out the delicata's sweetness. Pomegranate and sesame seeds add some nice pop. And though I haven't tried this yet, I get the feeling that something smoky would really make this hummus sing. Smoked sea salt? Crumbled bacon and chives? I don't know, but I can't wait to try.
On baguette
This recipe, by the way comes from Modern Farmer, a new-ish quarterly magazine that I've enjoyed paging through recently. It isn't exactly a food magazine in the expected sense (the hummus recipe is the only recipe in this issue), but unsurprisingly, it touches on issues we should all take some interest in (food waste, breeding heat-resistant strains of lettuce).

Delicata Hummus
Adapted from Karen Lebovitz in Modern Farmer, Fall 2013

2 pounds delicata squash (or of another variety of your choosing)
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
2 heads garlic, separated into cloves and peeled (about 1/2 cup of cloves)
2 or 3 serrano peppers, sliced in half, stems and seeds removed
1/4 cup tahini
3 tablespoons lemon juice

Greek yogurt, maple syrup, pomegranate seeds, and toasted sesame seeds

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Cut the squash in half and remove the seeds and string. Rub the flesh with 2 tablespoons of olive oil and 2 generous pinches of salt. Place the squash cut side down on a half-sheet and bake until very soft, about 1 hour.
While the squash is baking, place the garlic, serranos, and remaining olive oil in a small saucepan over low heat. Poach the garlic and peppers in the oil until completely soft, 30-40 minutes. The garlic should be very lightly browned.
Scoop out the flesh from the roasted squash and place in a food processor. Add the poaching oil, garlic, serranos, tahini, and lemon juice. Puree until smooth, about 1 minute. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
The texture of the hummus will vary with the squash. Add up to 1/2 cup of water and blend until the desired consistency is reached. Refrigerate at least 3 hours or up to a week. The hummus also keeps well frozen in an airtight container.
Makes 5-6 cups.


  1. Writing a dissertation seems so challenging - so amorphous and overwhelming when you're getting started. I had the same thoughts and feelings as you when I started. You'll get through this phase by taking it one step at a time - a cliche but it really works. It helped me to make detailed lists. As I went through each small task, I felt a sense of accomplishment that helped fuel me for the next task/day. And task after task, things took shape. It also helped to "cheat" myself into writing on days when I felt overwhelmed - just notes, scribbles, whatever. Slowly, steadily, those notes turned into paragraphs, which became pages, which became section, then chapters.

    Self care and a support system will really help too! Keep cooking! Best of luck to you - it will get easier.


    P.S. I did finish and it felt damn good.

    1. April, thanks so much for reaching out. I've fallen out of the habit of regularly making notes for myself over the last little while with school in full swing and teaching to do, but it's good advice, and I'll have to pick it up again. It's good to hear that this phase passes and that these little steps do add up. Thanks.

  2. Sounds delicious. But what makes it a hummus? Doesn't hummus literally mean chickpea? I think once there are no chickpeas in something, it should just be called a dip rather than XYZ hummus.

    1. Ah, I knew this would come up. I'm just following Karen Lebovitz's lead here. Hummus does translate into chickpea in Arabic, so I suppose that delicata spread or something like that would be more appropriate. But I don't know, calling it hummus otherwise gets the point across neatly. It is certainly hummus-inspired, at least.

  3. This does sound so delicious. So bright and light, too. And while I am by no means a hummus expert, perhaps all of the other ingredients — tahini, lemon, garlic, hot pepper, olive oil (all of which are in traditional hummus) — make it a hummus?

    1. Thanks, Ali! That's pretty much how I see it!

  4. Oh, the dissertation blues, I remember them so well. I think you're right: this stage is difficult for everybody (it definitely was for me) and it's hard to know where or to begin; you often wonder what the point is and where you fit into the craziness of academia. I do think, however, that it gets easier as your project progresses. To be entirely honest with you, I don't even think I understood the point of my dissertation until I finished the last chapter and started revising!

    While I would never call myself a dissertation expert in any sense of the word, I think you have to struggle to find your way through its murkiness and to remember to give yourself space along the way. Baking cakes and making preserves can certainly create feelings of guilt, but it's important to remember that doing these things can also give you the mental space to move forward. My most successful chapter was written after a long dissertation hiatus during which I made fritters and cake and traveled. In short, be kind to yourself.

    And this hummus sounds wonderful (glad to hear Modern Farmer is interesting, too; it's next on my food book club's reading list) ; I've been eating a lot of delicata squash recently and I like the idea of turning it into a spread.

    1. Thanks, Kate - I was hoping to hear from you, since you've been through this. I've heard similar things about not quite seeing what your dissertation is really until the end from a few people now, and it's good to know. It's also just frustrating since your advisors want you to paint them something of the big picture right now.

      Yeah, Modern Farmer is a fun read. My favourite piece in this issue is on the new dairy barn at Cornell. The barn is gorgeous architecturally, and there are photos of cows being massaged by this automatic apparatus designed for that purpose. It's adorable and comic.

  5. So glad I stopped by this evening to find this post! I just finished my dissertation proposal two days ago. The weight of the deadline passing has lifted so much pressure that I feel like I handed it in a month ago! But the intense process I went through writing the proposal really helped. I feel like I'm in a groove now and I'm hoping that will carry me through the many months of research + writing to come.

    I've been reading a lot about the process of writing a dissertation lately, because like you I found it very lonely and disconcerting and overwhelming, most of the time. My mom just bought me "Write your dissertation in 15 minutes a day" -- which, even though it sounds silly, is actually GREAT. Joan Bolker. It's all about making the process more process-oriented and positive. The BEST thing I've started to do is write in a daily journal about my process, where I'm stuck, what I want to do tomorrow, etc. It makes it a lot easier, just to reflect and check in with myself. Somehow, it feels like you're talking to yourself, and it makes the process less lonely. Plus it's fun to write in a journal and draw pictures and get away from the computer. Get yourself a nice journal! It's worth the 20 bucks no question.

    Other good advice: 1) use daily word count goals rather than time-based goals; 2) write about your writing process (daily journal, super helpful!); 3) write first -- ie. first thing, make it a priority -- you seem to be doing this, given the squash binge early AM; 4) use positive rewards if you write first rather than feeling crappy about "never getting enough done" -- I reward myself with reading food blogs and watching NYT videos if/when I meet my daily goal; 5) get a functional writing group -- I have a semi-functional one, and it helps!

    There's also destination dissertation. But I like this "15 minutes" book a lot regarding writing.

    Don't feel bad about cooking -- we all need a break from the computer and work sometimes. And there are a LOT worse things to do that cook food for yourself and good company as a hobby! STAY STRONG! In solidarity.

    1. Aw, thanks Leah, and congratulations on being done with your proposal!

      My department's graduate chair actually mentioned this book to a bunch of us in a workshop awhile ago. It is a little hard to get past the silly title/premise, but I will have to check it out. One of my advisors has also suggested that I keep a journal, which I was better at doing over the summer, but I plan to resume with that now that I've just finished grading a stack of midterm papers!

  6. Hang in there! Having recently completed a PhD, I can relate. I felt (and sometimes continue to feel) like a fraud surrounded by really smart people. Give yourself the opportunity to gain a little perspective-- step back once in a while. I think you'll surprise yourself with how much you really know, and how, having made it this far, you really do belong right where you are.

  7. Aww, Katie! I have friends who are going through similar stages in their PhD programs, so I can totally imagine how you're feeling. Props to you for even choosing to undergo such a rigorous path! You'll get through it! I know things will work out just fine. But in the meantime, I hope you keep up the cooking and the baking because I know it makes you happy. This squash hummus looks like such a delight (esp. with those pomegranate seeds!) - definitely what I would reach for if I were burning the midnight oil. Hang in there!

  8. How completely gorgeous Katie. I am always looking for things to spread on great bread and dip things into and this is amazing.

  9. I can totally relate! I'm also in grad school (for architecture, so a bit different) and have sometimes wondered why I seem so much more interested in making a casserole or hunting down a new bakery than focusing on my academic work. It's especially true when everyone around me seems so driven and focused and is pulling all nighters and here I am itching to go home to my kitchen. But I realize that this is how my mind relaxes, and cooking is one of the things that rounds out my day and makes me happy. I can't expect work to fulfill me completely... life promises too many good things! Grad school has that tendency to be 24-7, seeming to demand all your mind... but it's a myth that everyone is laser focused and sure of things. At least, that's been my experience! And thanks for your beautiful recipes always.

  10. Looks great, Katie! This hummus will be a welcome addition to my snack rotation as I write this term! Thanks & all the best with your work as well! - Christine E back in Kingston