Thursday, January 15, 2015

Pasta from Palermo, Sicily

It's little Italy here in the lab! My adviser is Italian, and a constant stream of visiting scholars (all but one is Italian, and we think one of the Italians will stay for his PhD...) have brought in language opportunities, jokes about espresso machines and a mild obsession with spaghetti. Over the past few months, I've become good friends with D, who happens to hail from the lovely, sun-soaked city of Palermo, Sicily.

D. is only staying here for six months, but already in the past three and a half, he's taught me to make three pasta dishes, thrown his own birthday party (it was fantastic, and involved a lemon meringue pie) visited Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Universal Studios, San Francisco, and taught Italian phrases to anyone who will listen (yes! I love languages!). On the last nights that one of our friends (the one non-Italian visiting scholar so far...) was here, before she returned to her home country, he made this particular dish. It's fast, since you can put it together as the water boils and the pasta cooks, simple, requiring eight ingredients total, and incredibly flavorful.

He likes spaghetti, but I find it messy and difficult to eat (I use chopsticks! Don't judge my inability to handle a fork properly!). I've substituted small shells, but those and macaroni happen to be my personal favorites. He also used fresh tomatoes, but it's winter in this hemisphere (even here in So-Cal) and I find that canned tomatoes are cheaper, with a more intense flavor. I buy the huge cans (cheaper by the oz.) and save them for a few days, cooking more dishes throughout the week. You should have approximately twice as much tomato as tuna. Another note is that any quality of Parmesan can be used. I think he originally made this dish with the little paper packets that come with pizza slices. Oh, and don't overcook the pasta. Imagine an opinionated Italian man lecturing you on the importance of al dente rather than soft pasta. I think David Lebovitz gets a pass, though, for being a god of pastry.

About a cup of dried pasta (or the equivalent amount of spaghetti)
2 cloves garlic
1 can tuna
About 1 can diced tomatoes
2 tbsp shredded Parmesan cheese (any quality works)
Salt to taste (about 1 tsp)
Black pepper to taste (about 1/2 tsp)
More olive oil than you think you need (about 4 tbsp)

In a medium pot, boil enough water that you can completely cover the pasta when it's added. Meanwhile, mince the garlic finely and toss it into a medium bowl. To this bowl, add everything but the pasta and mix it well. Once the water is boiling, add the pasta to the water and cook about 7-8 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking. Drain the pasta, and put the pot back on the stove. Add the contents of the bowl and cook just long enough to heat it through. Any longer, and face the wrath of said opinionated Italian mentioned above. Dish up, and enjoy!

Next up, the lemon meringue pie that was previously on my aspirations list!

Friday, January 9, 2015

Labmates make the work environment

This blog is veering further and further from its original goal, which was detailing my cooking and baking exploits. Then again, its name has a connotation of emergency, which is pretty widely applicable.

The real reason I wanted to write today, though, is more out of appreciation. One morning this week, my labmate arrived and we started talking. After a while, he said to me, I have a question for you. He told me about his program, which required solving a matrix calculation using a series of different parameters. He needed to solve this nine times, changing one of the parameters each time and saving the values.

About three weeks ago, I encountered a bug in one of my own programs, where I needed to solve some differential equations. While trying to set up a vector of solutions, I accidentally created a four-dimensional array, which promptly screwed up the rest of my indexing.

I recalled this and searched in Google (my default method for exploring the capabilities of MATLAB...). Lo and behold, multi-dimensional arrays, including the "cube" of values that worked perfectly for his project. And, I think I've found the solution to a problem that's been bugging me (sorry...) for a couple of days now.

This would never have happened last year, simply because I was the sole inhabitant of our lab. Even after a master's student joined the lab group, we were rarely there at the same time due to classes (mine) and work (his). This joint problem-solving was a small thing, and quite common in our lab, but in the long run, it makes me glad to be in a lab where questions are encouraged and collaboration flows naturally.

Next time, I'll return to food, a semi-recipe that this particular labmate first made for our friends, then taught me to make :)