“France, what’s a doctor’s desertation?”
“Well, you see, you take a book and go to the middle of a desert or something and then you bury it in the sand for a long time and then you dig it up again and you find that all the words have got mixed up like the sand and then you put them all back in place only this time you put them back any way you like. And then they make you a doctor. And I want to become a doctor without having to cut frogs in two.”
-Margarita Karapanou (Kassandra and the Wolf)

To run with Karapanou’s mocking treatment of the dissertating process, I’m officially back in the desert. I will say, however, that it’s not such a bad place to be. I’ve been spending my days surrounded by books, thumbing through articles and trying–through writing and reflection–to make sense of it all. There are moments when I think that it’s all happenstance, the work of one magical moment when the ideas seem to be flowing into a beautiful and coherent whole. Then, there are others when I know that it’s all about staring at the screen and fiddling with it until you somehow just make it work. Deep down I know that willpower may have a lot more to do with academic success (or any success for that matter) than sheer brilliance.

And, besides willpower, a healthy sense of balance probably doesn’t hurt either. That is what this past week, the last of the vacation, has been about. While, yes, there’s been plenty of work, there have also been the moments when the work has been set aside–sometimes for the sake of a lovely little lunch and, at others, for the sake of domestic happiness. While there’s not always time to plan meals when you’re in the midst of a writing frenzy, there’s something to be said for working with what you have. And we all have ingredients that, if we’re just inventive enough, can turn into something resembling comfort food. After all, even the busiest among us keep our favorite things in the fridge. For me, that’s peanut butter (but of course), apples and some kind of green, usually spinach. Soba noodles–for a little Asian twist–are also a staple in my pantry. It may seem like an obvious combination, but it was a revelation to me: a few red chili flakes and a splash of rice vinegar later, a warm and healthy lunch was on the table. The things that can sometimes seem so hard are often easily within our grasp.

But other things will just fall into our laps. I was in the library recently and a book by Sologub that I had looked at a gazillion times before suddenly opened to a page I had never seen before. My eye caught the word “война” (war) and, before I knew it, the theoretical apparatus of my chapter was unfurling before my eyes–painting, canvas, war as “a splendid panorama of expression!” These are the moments worth celebrating and I firmly believe that one should have sage on hand for such moments. The desert may have its perks, but returning to a cozy apartment with modern conveniences for a creative sage and satsuma cocktail and conversation with a special someone may just be the best end to any work day. There may be greatness in madness, but you’ve still got to know when to leave the madness behind.

Soba Noodles with Broccoli and Spinach in a Peppery Peanut Butter Dressing
Yields enough for 2

This recipe would work with tofu or bok choy. Use what you have and have fun with it. I like my dressing to be a little tangy and a lot peanut-buttery, so even though I used Heidi Swanson‘s recipe from Super Natural Every Day, I usually end up adding a little more rice vinegar and a little more peanut butter. Adjust to taste–the happiest way to eat.

1 package Annie Chun’s FreshPak noodles
1 small head of broccoli, cleaned and cut into florets
2 handfuls of baby spinach

For the dressing:
1/3 (plus 1 tsp.) creamy salted peanut butter
2 1/2 Tbsp. rice vinegar
1 clove garlic, put through the garlic press
1/2 tsp. toasted sesame oil
a few pinches of red pepper flakes, plus more for garnishing
1/3 – 1/2 cup hot water (for thinning out the dressing)

-Place the peanut butter, rice vinegar, pressed garlic, toasted sesame oil and red pepper flakes in a bowl. Stir.
-Add the hot water, thinning the dressing out. I like mine to be a little thick, but easily pourable.
-Once the dressing is made, prepare the soba noodles according to the directions on the package (N.B. this time around I used Annie Chun’s ready-made soba noodles, which I had in my fridge, but I think I prefer the ones that you boil yourself. They’re chewier and texture is key).
-While the noodles are cooling, heat up a skillet with a little toasted sesame oil.
-Add the broccoli and saute until the broccoli is beginning to change color and is easy to spear with a fork.
-At this stage, toss in the spinach. As soon as it starts to wilt, turn off the heat.
-Add about half of the dressing to coat the vegetables and, then add the noodles, as well as the remaining dressing.
-Mix well so that everything is coated in the peanut butter dressing.
-Sprinkle a few more red pepper flakes on your lunchtime achievement and enjoy!

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