Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Of Bread Molds, Bacteriophages, and Bug Brains: The Fight Against Infection

On a quiet morning in September of 1928, a brilliant but absent-minded microbiologist found that one of his Petri dishes containing colonies of bacteria had been contaminated with a fairly common mold that is usually found on bread and fruit. Rather than simply throw out the plate, the scientist noticed that there were no bacterial colonies growing around the mold—instead there was a clear zone around the mold that was completely absent of growth. Upon further investigation, he realized that the mold, called Penicillium notatum, was secreting a substance that inhibited growth of certain bacteria. This microbiologist, Alexander Fleming, had just discovered one of the most important substances of the twentieth century: penicillin.

Over the next few decades, several scientists worked on better understanding, purifying, and mass-producing penicillin. In fact, penicillin was an important force in World War II, saving as many as 15% of Allied troops with severe infections from battle injuries. Penicillin was, and continues to be, very important in handling bacterial infections. It was the first effective drug used to treat diseases such as gonorrhea, syphilis, or gangrene. However, penicillin cannot inhibit the growth of many types of bacteria and sometimes causes problematic side effects. As a result, there has been an assortment of semi-synthetic derivatives of penicillin produced (such as ampicillin and amoxicillin) that have a similar mechanism of action but can treat a wider variety of infections with fewer complications. Over the years, other antibacterials with different modes of action, such as erythromycin, mupirocin, and tetracycline, have been discovered, developed, and have saved countless lives.

However, all antibacterials have the same problem: bacteria can develop resistance. This means that a drug employed to treat an infection, especially if it is overused, is no longer effective. All antibiotics work by interfering with some aspect of the pathogen’s metabolism that is different from the host’s. But if a bacterium evolves so that some aspect of its metabolism is altered, a drug no longer works. The matter is further complicated because many bacteria can share genetic information, so that resistance can be passed from one species to another. The resulting bacteria can wreak havoc, since treatments are either ineffective, extremely expensive, or toxic to the patient.

This problem has propelled a search for the next generation of antibiotics. Many drugs so far have been found in nature, from common molds to plants to bacteria themselves. A great number are slightly altered versions of these natural compounds that somehow improve the original. But many of the most promising new antibacterials are being found in the strangest of places, most notably, cockroach and locust brains. Though an initially strange idea, it makes sense to look inside of insect brains for highly effective antibiotics with few side effects. Bugs tend to live in nasty environments teaming with all sorts of bacteria, so in order to protect themselves from infection, they produce substances that will kill off invaders and protect their delicate little nervous systems. Scientists have also turned to the seas for new antibacterials. Some marine invertebrates, such as the hydra or sponge, produce antibacterials that attack bacteria in completely new ways. Instead of using a regular molecule, they can use proteins to kill off pathogens.

Another unique strategy is the use of viruses to inhibit bacterial growth. Bacteriophages, which are viruses that infect bacteria, are perfectly safe in the human body and are very effective in killing off pathogens. Furthermore, they are highly specific and thus will not affect the “good bacteria” that are found in our bodies, which has been a problem with some commonly used antibacterials. Phage therapy is certainly not a new strategy, having been used for decades in eastern Europe, but it is only now being investigated for use in the United States. Research on phage therapy has been looking promising for treatment of highly problematic infections, such as those caused by methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).

The twentieth century brought us the ultimate answer to Louis Pasteur’s Germ Theory (which states that many diseases are caused by microbes): antibiotics. Antibacterial drugs, from the mold-derived penicillin to the extremely toxic chloramphenicol, have revolutionized medicine and turned diseases that were originally a death sentence to completely treatable conditions. Hopefully, the twenty-first century will bring a new host of strategies that will fight pathogenic bacteria and keep us healthy.

Note: Though they are often used interchangeably, there is an important difference between antibacterials and antibiotics. Antibacterials specifically handle bacteria, whereas antibiotics take on any microbe (a better term is “antimicrobial”). In this article, I have opted to use both words, but never synonymously. See this Venn diagram for my completely unnecessary and by no means thorough explanation:

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Quick Pasta!

One thing I have had to learn over the past year is to make protein-ish, cheap, and filling meals quickly--I mean, when you're studying for finals or have three tests and two papers due in the span of four days, you do have to eat (clarification: you SHOULD eat, even if you don't HAVE to). Strategies have included canned food, cooking and freezing food on weekends, scrambled eggs, microwaved potatoes, and slow cooker meals. This week, I discovered a new one: pasta on the fly.

The basic idea is this: combine easy-to-make protein with frozen vegetables and rice-cooker pasta. It turns out that making pasta in the rice cooker takes very little time and effort. I have, on other occasions, used real pasta sauce, cooked garlic and onions, and added ground beef. But if I don't have the time for that, bacon (microwaved), garlic powder, butter, and shredded mozzarella are quite delicious! And for veggies, some defrosted broccoli or peas do just fine.

Making pasta in a dorm is pretty easy. Put water in the rice cooker, and when it boils, add pasta. Once the pasta is cooked, dump it into a strainer and rinse with cold water. Add crumbled bits of bacon, tons of shredded cheese, some butter, plenty of salt, frozen veggies, pepper, and garlic powder. Nuke to get the cheese to melt and the veggies to defrost, and you've got enough pasta to last you for at least a whole day.

Oh, and as for gluten-free pasta: it turns out that Wal-Mart now carries it, and a little goes a looong way. Win.

Study break over. Time to go back to micro and the second draft of my thesis...

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Benoit Mandelbrot, Father of the Fractal

Last month, the world lost one of the most brilliant mathematical minds of the past few decades: Benoit Mandelbrot. This mathematician was born November 20, 1924, in Poland, grew up in France, and spent most of his adult life working in the United States. Mandelbrot made contributions to numerous fields, including economics, information theory, and fluid dynamics, but he is perhaps best known for his work in theoretical mathematics, specifically, fractal geometry. A fractal is a shape that possesses the property of self-similarity——zooming in reveals that the border forms patterns similar to the whole, making the shape never-endingly complex. Computer programs can be used to generate fractals that have color-coded areas, giving rise to beautiful, trippy images.

However, a fractal is more than just a pretty picture. The equations that give rise to these fractals can actually be used to describe various phenomena in nature.

In fact, Mandelbrot was first inspired to explore the concept of fractals when pondering how best to measure the coast of Britain. This seemingly easy endeavor is actually quite difficult. The more precise the measurements are, the longer the coast becomes. Mandelbrot realized that these complex borders can be described according to simple formulas. For instance, the mathematician’s eponymous fractal, the Mandelbrot set, is defined by a very simple equation: z → z^2 + c. But zooming into the border of the fractal reveals consistent, infinite complexity.

Fractal geometry can be applied to a variety of fields. Fractals have been used for image analysis software, musical compositions, image compression, and even computer games. They can also be used in more scientific fields, such as seismology or medicine. Perhaps most importantly, fractals have shown that seemingly random and confusing things can actually be described and predicted very precisely with elegant formulas. Thanks to Mandelbrot, it is now understood that all sorts of phenomena, from occurrences in nature to the stock market, are full of intricate patterns that reveal a hidden order and beauty in the world.

Rest in peace, Benoit Mandelbrot. You will be missed.

Benoit Mandelbrot, 11/20/1924-10/14/2010

Watch this TED talk by Mandelbrot himself a few months ago:

Fractal wrongness

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Global Warming Meets Turing Test!

I don't normally visit twitter pages (don't have a twitter account to begin with), but this one is pretty awesome. It's a bot that scans twitter for the latest global warming denialist tweets and automatically generates a rebuttal with links for support! Of course, it's a PROGRAM so it's not always spot-on, but still, the idea is pretty cool. Ah, the wonders of repetitive, poorly researched claims...


So this is a lame post, whatever. "New" recipe coming soon!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Star Trek Technology: When Science Boldly Goes Where Fiction Has Gone Before

The post below is based on an article I recently wrote for the science/tech page of the school newspaper (I haven't posted for a while, so I figure something extremely geeky and of mediocre quality is better than nothing...). Enjoy!

Also, I have a new blog design! Isn't it neat?

For decades, the genre of science fiction has enthralled and even inspired generations of nerds, and perhaps one of the most-loved science fiction franchises is Star Trek. Yes, this show may call to mind geeky conventions and socially-awkward individuals, but after the 2009 film caused more widespread acceptance, it’s official: it is now okay to like Star Trek. Part of the franchise’s appeal lies in the awesome technology, and interestingly, the geeks who first liked the series have brought some of the gadgets out of science fiction and into the real world.

Set phasers on stun
Perhaps the most well-known Star Trek gadget is the phaser. The phaser is a device that shoots a beam of energy, which, depending on the setting will “stun,” “kill,” or “vaporize” the target. While there still aren’t weapons in use that will actually stun or vaporize, it is possible to make something similar to the fictional device, using only a blue-ray player and a few assorted materials you can find at any hardware store. The army is also toying with a few less sleek (read: bulky and expensive) weapons that could someday be useful for crowd control, since they are equipped to paralyze people with ultra-sonic waves and similar apparatuses.

The Ship
Without a doubt, the most powerful devices are found on the Star Trek ships themselves. Unfortunately, most of the technology is not yet developed, or is barely even conceptualized.

For instance, some experiments with transporters have been done, but nothing with human beings. Theoretically, a transporter would convert somebody into an energy pattern then convert that energy back into matter at a different location. The amount of information coded by only one person is nearly impossible to even imagine, and the ethical issues abound—is a person still the same person if they’ve been re-created in a different place?

However, the coolest trekkie ship technology being developed is the tractor beam. In the Star Trek world, the ships have devices that can literally pick something up and move it without touching it—for instance, if the Enterprise came across a ship that needed repair, it could “tow” it to a nearby station. Scientists have found ways to shift small objects around using lasers and hot gas. Of course, this means that the tractor beam could not be used in outer space, since space is a vacuum and thus does not contain air. But the potential applications are quite exciting.

I’m a doctor, not an engineer
Some of the coolest gadgets in the Star Trek universe are found in sickbay. Patients are regularly diagnosed or treated with small devices that do not break the skin, calling to mind our modern-day super-fast thermometers or jet injectors used to inject substances intramuscularly without needles.

Perhaps a more well-known device is the VISOR worn by Geordi La Forge in Star Trek: The Next Generation. The VISOR, a small device worn around the eyes that hooked above the ears, enabled the blind La Forge, to see the world through most of the electromagnetic spectrum (although he could not see visible light). While we still don’t have a device as powerful as the VISOR, researchers have begun to find ways to give people back some degree of vision. Like the VISOR, some of these devices use tiny machines that feed information directly to the brain or retina, allowing someone who cannot see with their eyes to pick up some degree of visual stimuli.

In Star Trek, procedures are almost always performed on people without even having to cut them open. While we still have to go into the body in some way, many modern surgeries are performed with minimal invasiveness—or, even better, by ROBOTS. And of course, there is now something that can act like the electronic pad the doctors so often used to read and analyze patient information: the iPad.

We may not have all the amazing technology from Star Trek yet—holodecks, androids, warp drives, true cloaking devices, photon torpedoes, deflector shields, and (fortunately) the Borg are still to come—but we do have a slew of other sci-fi-esque contraptions that will become, if they haven’t already, a staple of modern life.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Chicken Satay-ish

Probably one of the awesomest things about living in an apartment this year (besides my WONDERFUL roommates) is that I can constantly make food and have people over. Today, I did both (sort of)--so much fun! My friend J came over early this afternoon, and helped me make the rice and adjust the ingredients for the sauce, since I know absolutely nothing about cooking with curry and he is apparently familiar with Thai cuisine. R (one of my roommates) set the table, L (another roommate) dropped by, and we had a lovely time eating dinner!

    Main ingredients:
  • 5 chicken breasts, cut into bite-sized chunks
  • 2 cups long-grain rice + 4 cups water (in rice cooker)
  • Extra-virgin olive oil for skillet

  • 5 gigantic spoonfuls of apple sauce
  • 3 gigantic spoonfuls of chunky peanut butter
  • 1 spoonful curry
  • 1/2 spoonful chili powder
    (Microwave until the ingredients mix together smoothly, or ~3 minutes.)

Cook chicken in skillet. Add sauce and push around until well mixed. Serve on rice, with additional curry and chili sprinkled on top if desired. Absolutely delicious, and SO filling.

I will definitely have to try more "different" recipes. It's easy to shy away from the odd ones, since they're a bit intimidating, but this shows that they can be very WIN!

Recipe ripped off from foodnetwork.com. Thanks to my awesome mother for finding it for me!

Monday, August 2, 2010

Terapia de Tilapia

A bit less than a month ago, I had one of the most terrible weeks this year. It was absolutely AWFUL. My medication ran out, experiments didn't work, my lab presentation was a total fail, etc. I decided to take action, and spent Thursday lunch break cooking. This recipe was sort of improvised, using another recipe as a starting point. I had been craving fish, so I settled on tilapia, which I happened to have in the freezer.

  • 5 tilapia filets
  • ~3/4 stick butter
  • black pepper
  • lemon juice
  • chili powder
  • thyme
  • salt

I started by melting the butter and mixing in the spices. Then, I dipped each filet into the mixture. Using my brand new skillet, Oscar, I cooked each filet for 2-3 minutes per side, pouring extra seasoning mix on top.

After they looked reasonably cooked, I moved them to a tupperware and added 1/2 onion, thinly sliced. After the onions were thoroughly done, I added them to the tupperware then put in 1 white potato, sliced. I occasionally poured any extra butter mixture on top. These then went into the tupperware as well.

Though I was planning on eating the tilapia for lunch the following day, my roommate L and I ended up eating this for dinner, along with some broccoli. Delicious--and therapeutic!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Plantain and Sausage Heaven

Having just purchased a skillet (named Oscar) I have been looking for stir-fry recipes to try out. I'd been trying not to use pots and pans too often, since I would have to borrow my roommate M's stuff, but now that I have my own, I am freeeeee to experiment!

Tonight, my other roommate L and I tried out a new recipe, courtesy of burpandslurp.com. I am titling it "Plantain and Sausage Heaven," for obvious reasons...here is the recipe, with some of my own modifications (picture is from the site--ours didn't look this pretty)!

  1. Cut plantains and sausages into optimal-sized (as close to a cube-shape) chunks. Cook in pan.
  2. Chop 3/4 onion, 1 clove garlic, 1/2 green pepper, and ~1/2 cup pineapple (all amounts are approximate). Pour these, as well as a handful of craisins, into the skillet.
  3. Once the veggies are done, add the sausages and plantains back in.
  4. Add ~1/4 cup mustard, a few squirts of lemon juice, cinnamon, black pepper, chili powder, ginger, and salt. Stir until everything is mixed and warm.
  5. Enjoy!

Oh my gosh, SO delicious! L and I managed to have almost all of the requisite ingredients (she provided the amazing sausages and I had everything else lying around). We were missing mango ginger chutney and Greek yogurt, but we didn't really miss it. I used ginger to substitute in for the chutney and added craisins for color. We put in almond milk (as included in the original recipe), but I've omitted it from this version because it seems kind of pointless. Finally, I poured in orange-mango-pineapple juice at random times, since I had it in the fridge and we were missing mango to begin with. I don't know if it did anything, but if nothing else, it added an INCREDIBLE smell.

I highly recommend that you, faithful readers (all 6 of you :-)), try this recipe. Absolute win.

Sunday, July 18, 2010


Favorite food in the world = pizza. Hands down. This is probably the thing I miss most of all since going gluten-free, and after more than two years, I'm still not used to it. I constantly crave it, and the torture is particularly acute since people eat it so often. Of course, it's not a big deal at all, but it's certainly nice when I come across a delicious, edible pizza. Even the non-delicious ones are fine.

Hence my excitement when I discovered that the Kroger near my apartment this summer carries gluten/soy free mozzarella cheese pizzas! Yes, they're a bit plain, but they're PIZZA!

Naturally, I glammed it up before baking and consuming it, so there were a few delicious toppings I piled on top of the pizza: chopped bacon, minced garlic, pineapple, and thinly-sliced onions.

So, so yummy. Amen.

Sunday, July 11, 2010


No, not the capital of Lebanon...the band.

This is one of the most difficult bands to categorize--the influences are all over the place. The general sound spans a whole slew of genres, and each album has a slightly different feel to it. But despite its decided strangeness, the songs are very easy to listen to. I first digested their entire discography while working on my take-home final for Biological Techniques. It was a monster final, and I ended up having more than thirty sources over the course of the twelve hours spent sitting on the floor wrapped in a blanket, surrounded by notes and junk food. Tired of the loud, obnoxious music I usually listen to when working on a difficult assignment, I decided to try out the strange new band I'd recently discovered (courtesy of Julian Casablancas, who lists them as a favorite band), and was surprised when I realized I'd listened to all sixty-something songs almost without interruption.

Fluid, lyrical, and thoughtful, Beirut are technically a combination of Balkan folk, Mexican folk, electronica, and "world" (whatever that means), producing an overall sound generally labeled as "indie." This strange combination actually works, in a melodic stream of awesome that you have to hear to understand.

Beirut is the brainchild of New Mexico native Zach Condon, who plays ukelele and flugelhorn in addition to being lead singer. His voice is carefully emotive, reminiscent of Rufus Wainwright and Jeff Buckley. Like his vocals, the albums themselves are subtle and beautiful. Each is different, but they all have an undercurrent of loving, longing, searching, romanticism, and perhaps even nostalgia for a world never experienced. As a superficial example, see the front cover for the first album, Gulag Orkestar:

According to wikipedia, this photo (as well as the back cover) was torn out of a book found in a library in Leipzig, Germany...an unknown photographer and models, European license plate, vintage clothing, troubled situation, and ambiguous time period--romantic mystery, anyone? It was later found out that the photographs were taken by the equally moody Sergey Chilikov, a Russian photographer who is currently alive and well (see some of his other beautiful, albeit blurry, pieces here, but I don't recommend googling him...), yet the romanticism remains.

Speaking personally, all of Beirut's work is delicious, but I recommend either Gulag Orkestrar or, if in a hurry, the Lon Gisland EP [correct spelling] as a starting point for the neophyte.

Sample songs:

Postcards from Italy


Le Moribond/My Family's Role in the World Revolution

Wikipedia page
Sergey Chilikov--Gallery

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Frijoles Negros (or, Black Bean and Randomness Soup)

Wow, no recipes posted in a while! But I'm now back out on my own at my summer internship, so I'm having to feed myself again. Here is one of my new favorites.

For me, black beans are in a special food group of familiarity, along with garlic, hummus, dark chocolate, tostones, and cafe con leche. Having been raised in a Cuban family, these beans were practically my first solid food. There's nothing quite like a plate of homemade black beans on white rice (with tostones and boliche, of course). They are flavorful, filling, cheap, and very healthy (they contain plenty of fiber, protein, folate, a lot of antioxidants, and help stabilize blood sugar).

I have recently developed and perfected a new meal idea: canned black beans dumped into a tupperware, with a few slices of mozzarella, a spoonful of minced garlic, dried chopped onions, a dash of cayenne pepper, and a handful of chips or torn up corn tortillas. Nuke for a few minutes, enjoy. Or, if there's a bit of time, stick in the slow cooker on high for 2-3 hours.

Total win! SO easy to prepare, SO delicious, and very inexpensive. The beans were under a dollar a can at Wal-Mart, the tortillas come from a gigantic stack that cost a few dollars, and the other ingredients are always around anyway. Of course, I can only make these every few days. It's such a great "cop-out" meal when I'm tired and just want to get enough protein to not start breaking down emotionally (it happens).

When I have a bit more time, I go a bit further and add the following to Gretel:

  • 2 cans black beans
  • 1 can corn
  • 1 spoonful minced garlic (or 1-2 cloves)
  • 1/2-1 onion
  • 1/2 green bell pepper
  • A few dashes of cayenne pepper
  • A few dashes of black pepper
  • Any other foods that have been hanging out in the fridge for a while and need to be consumed (examples: okra, avocado, and celery).
  • Whatever meat is lying around. I've used ground beef I browned in my rice cooker, chopped up steak, and chicken.
  • Mozzarella cheese, once the soup/chili-thing is done cooking
  • SALT! Oh my gosh, salt salt salt salt salt. Otherwise it tastes funky.

This plus some chips or tortillas = yes.


Friday, May 21, 2010

Independent Functions of Viral Protein and Nucleic Acid in Growth of Bacteriophage

Aka, deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is the genetic material! This journal article, published in 1952 by Alfred Hershey and Martha Chase, is a landmark discovery in molecular biology. I won't go into the gritty details, but I will offer some background and the basic gist of the experiment. (FYI, it's not the anniversary of its publication or anything--I'm just really excited that the .pdf is available online for free :-) )

At the time, no one knew exactly what passed on genetic information. By the 1950s, it was between DNA and proteins, and most scientists figured the latter were the molecules of life. It made the most sense, since proteins are far more complex than DNA--proteins can be made up of up to 20 different amino acids, whereas there are only four nucleic acids in DNA.

Hershey and Chase wanted to see what a virus used to infect bacteria (the "infectious material"). They labeled the proteins in one batch of virus with radioactive sulfur, and the DNA in another batch with radioactive phosphorus. They let the viruses hang out with the bacteria for a little while, then tested to see which batch of bacteria had labeled material. They discovered that the only bacteria with radioactive material were the ones that had been infected using viruses labeled with phosphorus--basically, DNA, not protein, was being used to pass on genetic material from virus to bacterium. Here is a diagram that does a way better job illustrating what I'm trying to explain:

The main reason why this experiment is extremely cool is that, despite the incredible importance of the findings, it is very simple and straightforward. A lot of the most revolutionary discoveries in science have been made with very simple but elegant experiments. Also, this was one of the first important biology papers coauthored by a woman (I think), so that's pretty neat too.

I have to confess that the main reason why I decided to post this is because I love how, after trying all sorts of high-tech, lab-ey ways to separate the viruses from the bacteria, Hershey and Chase settled on a plain kitchen blender...oh yeah.

Further reading

For the experiment:
Wikipedia page.
Independent functions of viral protein and nucleic acid in growth of bacteriophage (Hershey and Chase, 1952). [pdf]

Two more simple but very cool and important molecular biology papers:
A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid (Watson and Crick, 1953). [pdf]
The replication of DNA in Escherichia coli (Meselson and Stahl, 1958). [pdf]

[Diagram of experiment taken completely without permission from The Pauling Blog.]

Friday, May 7, 2010

Smallpox (a cheerful post)

Below is an article I originally wrote for the school paper science/tech page and beefed up for this blog. It's a bit awkward, but I feel like I did a decent job. Another random post, and I don't care. Huzzah!

Poxviruses are the biggest and most complex animal viruses. The human poxvirus, smallpox, was one of the major causes of death in many civilizations for a long time. Smallpox killed about 500 million people in the 20th century—far more than the deaths caused by wars, the 1918 flu pandemic, and AIDS combined. Famous victims include Ramses V, Mozart, Beethoven, George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Joseph Stalin, Mary Queen of Scots, Mary II of England, Louis XV of France, and Peter II of Russia.

The ordinary form of smallpox has a 30% mortality; however, two other types, the flat and hemorrhagic manifestations, are almost always fatal. The disease is characterized by rounded vesicles that are usually dimpled, and found mostly around the head and extremities. The bumps have been described as feeling like BB gun pellets embedded in the skin. Many survivors are badly scarred or even blinded.

There have been attempts to prevent or lessen the impact of a smallpox infection via inoculation for centuries. All sorts of methods have been used, from inhaling ground up scabs to introducing the virus through cuts in the skin. Though death from these sorts of infection was still possible, the mortality was far lower and thus worth the risk.

In 1796, Edward Jenner began experimenting with vaccination by purposely infecting an eight-year-old boy, James Phipps, with cowpox, a bovine virus related to smallpox. It was fairly well-known in rural areas that milkmaids rarely contracted smallpox, and Jenner wanted to investigate this. After contracting cowpox, little Phipps was mildly ill (a low fever and some pox for about a week), but showed no sign of infection after being exposed to smallpox later on. It turns out that cowpox confers immunity to smallpox. To put it simply, the body learns how to handle smallpox infection by being exposed to its mild-mannered cousin. Nowadays this experiment by the "father of immunology" would be considered unethical, but at the time his discovery was revolutionary. Jenner tested several other individuals, published his work, and led an effort to develop a vaccine for smallpox made from the pus of cowpox bumps.

Thanks to the work of Jenner and other pioneers in the field, a vaccine was developed. At first, vaccines were often contaminated and sometimes caused health problems, but once again, the benefits far outweighed the rare serious side effects. During the 19th century, many countries declared smallpox vaccination mandatory. Once mass vaccination became commonplace, the rates of smallpox infection in developed areas plummeted.

In 1967, the World Health Organization (WHO) made the decision to attempt worldwide eradication of smallpox. The disease is an excellent candidate for eradication for several reasons. First, it is exclusive to humans, so there is no animal carrier. There is a very effective, inexpensive vaccine against it. People are not carriers for the disease once they get over it. And finally, cases of smallpox are easily identifiable, thanks to the distinctive bumps and rash pattern.

At this time, vaccination was widespread in developed countries, so WHO efforts were concentrated in third-world countries. Vaccination ended in the United States in 1972 because of the incredibly low incidence and the possibility of severe side effects.
Rather than try to vaccinate all members of the global population, the WHO decided to address individual cases. Cards with photos of infected individuals and a basic clinical description of the disease were widely distributed. When a case of smallpox was identified, the WHO was contacted. They then put the infected individual in isolation and vaccinated all people in the general area, a process called “ring vaccination.” Once cases became less common, cash rewards were offered for reporting sick individuals. The last natural case occurred in Somalia in 1977. The world was officially declared smallpox-free in 1980.

Though smallpox is no longer found in the wild, it does exist in two laboratories, the CDC in Atlanta and the Vector Institute in Koltsovo, Russia. The virus is important to keep in the laboratory. Even though it is not necessary for vaccination against the disease, it is useful for research in development of antivirals and other vaccines. The decision to maintain the virus in the laboratory has been a controversial one. There is the distinct risk of it somehow making its way out of the laboratory, since smallpox is an excellent biological weapon.

Smallpox as a Biological Weapon
A good biological weapon doesn’t just cause suffering—it makes a society fall apart. Smallpox kills or permanently scars most who are infected. It is highly contagious, and because we no longer vaccinate against it, most people have no immunity. In the event of a widespread smallpox epidemic without emergency vaccination, people would not go to work, a general fear would pervade communities, children could not go to school, and even the government might begin to shut down.

Smallpox as a biological weapon would not be a new phenomenon. For instance, Cortez inadvertently wiped out a good portion of the Aztec population because of one infected member of his expedition. The British in the French and Indian war gave Native Americans blankets that had been in contact with people who had smallpox, though it is unclear how effective it was. There is also some evidence that smallpox was used in the American Revolutionary War.

It is frightening to think how a disease like smallpox could disable our society. Fortunately, our country is not entirely susceptible to smallpox as a bioweapon, since enough vaccine has been stored to protect the entire population in the event of an attack.

So far, smallpox is the only disease to be fully eradicated. There have been other eradication programs that were abandoned (hookworm, malaria, yaws, and yellow fever) and a few others that are ongoing (poliomyelitis and dracunculiasis). Other potential candidates are measles, mumps, rubella, tapeworm, and filariasis.
People who are against the idea of vaccination in general often do not realize that vaccines against smallpox, polio, influenza, measles, and rabies have saved millions of lives. Yes, there are occasional side effects with all of these vaccines, but the benefits acquired by disease prevention greatly outweigh the negative consequences of mass vaccination.

Inhabitants of developed countries tend to forget that less developed or more densely populated countries have huge problems with all of these diseases. Diseases that seem rare and basically harmless can be huge threats in third world countries, where adequate nutrition and proper medical care are not always available. For instance, measles, a childhood disease that hasn't been common in a long time, has a 28% mortality rate in third-world countries. TWENTY-EIGHT PERCENT. In order for a disease to be completely eradicated, there has to be immunity on a global scale. The complete eradication of smallpox, which for millennia was a significant problem, is an amazing feat for mankind. It has shown that with a strong, organized effort, much human suffering and death can be avoided.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Roniopplemary Chicken...

This recipe was inspired (okay, stolen) from the Food Network website with, of course, several modifications from me (here is the original version). It looked simple and pretty tasty, and I happened to have all of the ingredients (yay!), so I decided to make it.

As usual, I did not have any of the ingredients in the right proportions, but whatever:

  • 3 chicken breasts
  • 1 apple, peeled and chopped
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • Garlic
  • ~2 spoonfuls of rosemary
  • Lemon juice
  • Low sodium chicken broth
  • SALT

This was quite good! I served it on white rice and consumed it over a few days. It could have used more flava, but I just heaped on the salt and everything was fine (that's what happens when you accidentally purchase low sodium chicken broth...). This recipe did have something missing though, and I'm not sure what it was. It needed richness, a sort of "umami" type of taste...whatever.

Things learned:

  • Put in the apples closer to the end. Otherwise, they get way too mushy.
  • The lemon juice was definitely a mistake. Too much acidity. I will not be using it again in this recipe.
  • Chicken CANNOT be cooked for very long. I don't know why I keep making this mistake, but I am determined not to mess up again. From now on, 2.5 hours on high, tops.
  • Less broth. It makes the rice soggy. I have yet to figure out how to get everything in Gretel thoroughly cooked without filling it with liquid (I don't want EVERYTHING to be a watery soup...). For now, I'm just using a slotted spoon to filter out liquid before I put stuff away in a tupperware.

Re: the name. Nothing else has occurred to me...there must be a name less cumbersome than "roniopplemary" out there, but it continues to evade me.

Happy May to everyone!

And happy birthday to my wonderful father!!!!!!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Phrazes for the Young

To quote Monty Python, "and now, for something completely different" :-)

It's been a while since I've found a relatively recent album that I liked. Nothing against recent music--I'm just too lazy to find good new music. However, I just discovered an amazing CD that is both original and pretty epic.

I first knew of Julian Casablancas because of his contribution to The Lonely Island's first CD, Incredibad, a surreal, hilarious song about...well, it's indescribable. I'm just going to post the video below. When they used the song for an SNL Digital Short, I did my usual "research on Wikipedia" thing, and found out Julian had released a solo album, "Phrazes for the Young" (the title references one of Oscar Wilde's works) in November. Now, I'm usually suspicious of solo projects from a member of an already awesome band, mainly because they just aren't as good. This is an exception. Besides having the coolest name ever, Julian Casablancas is also a genius songwriter (just listen to any Strokes CD...), and his talent is not restricted to Strokes projects.

"Phrazes for the Young" is a delicious ride through a carefully crafted world of synth-ey beats, amazing vocals, and sincere emotion. With only eight tracks encompassing nearly 40 minutes, I am always left wanting more. But despite the brevity, there is a song for every mood.

The first track, "Out of the Blue," is passionate but fun, with incredibly catchy lyrics--a great way to open an album. "Glass" and "Tourist" are definitely tied for my favorite. They both have AWESOME phrases that stay wonderfully stuck in your head (I've been walking around hearing "bullet-proooooof...vest!" for a few weeks now...). And then there's the first single, "11th Dimension," the most eighties sounding track with a correspondingly retro music video (embedded below). It is campy and intriguing, without taking itself too seriously (and is it just me, or does Julian Casablancas bear an unnerving resemblance to Frodo Baggins during the black-and-white scenes?). I'm usually not a huge fan of music videos, but I'd give it a quick glance--it's fun, cheesy, and features some surprisingly good acting from Casablancas.

Julian Casablancas
I wish I could provide some speculations as to the actual messages in "Phrazes," but unfortunately, the lyrics generally go over my head. There is definitely depth there, and hopefully I'll "get it" eventually, because I have a feeling Casablancas is offering far more than the great music and vocals.

The album as a whole has a slew of influences, from eighties pop to Johnny Cash to a bit of soul (and I hear a little bit of Thom Yorke in his voice), without being contrived. It is clearly a bit of an experiment, and I think that Casablancas' willingness to take chances generally pays off, with the occasional awkward moment (most notably the bizarre and grating "River of Brakelights").

Casablancas' first solo effort is full of surprises that caught me off guard, and it took a few listens to really grow on me. There is an exquisite complexity to the album that prompts a craving for repeated listens. Let the genius of "Phrazes" sweep you away--you won't be sorry.

"11th Dimension" music video:

And now, behold the awesomeness that is "Boombox" (FYI, this is definitely a PG-13 video):

Saturday, March 27, 2010

A love-post to the avocado

I am devoting this post to a delicious fruit, the avocado. Yes, the avocado is a fruit (technically, a huge berry). Though the avocado has been one of my favorite foods for a long time, it hadn't occurred to me to actually eat it on a relatively frequent basis. But after a brilliant recommendation from a friend, I now buy a few avocados whenever they're on sale. They are delicious, healthy, and fairly easy to eat. Here is a badly-researched bit about this food that I might end up using for my next science/tech article in the paper:

Avocados originate from Mexico. Archeological evidence shows that humans have been consuming them for about 12,000 years! The Aztecs referred to it as the “fertility fruit” (no idea why), and in some Spanish-speaking countries it is called “manzana del invierno,” or “winter apple.”

It is hypothesized that avocados developed through coevolution with now-extinct large mammals (this is referred to as an evolutionary anachronism). Some plants disperse their seeds through endozoochory—basically, animals that eat their fruits then spread the seeds in their feces. Fruits such as avocados or mangos don’t seem to fit this rule—unless you think of a gigantic sloth or humongous elephant, both of which could pass a large seed without a problem. Call me immature, but I find this evolutionary anachronism funny.

The average avocado has:

  • 240 calories, about 75% of which are from fat
  • Sixty-percent more potassium than the average banana
  • 3g of protein
  • 1 g of sugar
  • 13g cholesterol
  • Vitamins A and C
  • Folate
  • Magnesium
  • Monounsaturated fat

(Unfortunately, I don’t have numbers on all of these—I’m just banking on the truth value of the Wikipedia entry :-) )

Avocados have been shown to decrease blood serum cholesterol, LDL, and triglyceride levels, and increase HDL levels. They may also promote skin and hair health (but I wasn’t able to find scientific evidence for this). Some people even use it as a facial mask, which I don’t understand—just eat it! Fresh fruits are way too expensive to waste by smearing on the skin, unless you eat them afterwards (which somehow seems extremely unappealing). It is also sometimes used as a houseplant (!!!).

Hass avocados are the most commonly grown and consumed avocados in the United States (90% of the avocados grown in Southern California, the sort-of avocado capital, are of the Hass variety). They were named for and patented by the man who owned the very first official tree, Rudolph Hass. There are several over varieties, including Gwen, Pinkerton, Reed, Bacon, and others that I won’t go into because the Hass avocado is the only one I know and like.

I hope this was informative...if not, at least spend ~30 seconds looking at pictures of the Gomphothere--I mean, come on, his name is just fun to say!

(Barely reputable) Sources:

Monday, March 15, 2010


Happy (?) Ides of March! Yesterday was pi day, and now a reminder of the ultimate backstabber...

Today (well, last night) I decided to make cheeseburger soup. I've had this one on my "recipes to make" list for quite some time, so I decided to make room in my freezer and go ahead and make this.

  • Ground beef (browned in the rice cooker)
  • 2 white potatoes, peeled and chopped
  • 1/4 onion
  • 2 ribs celery
  • 2 carrots
  • 1/2 tsp. basil
  • 1/2 tsp. parsley
  • ~12 oz chicken broth
  • ~1 spoonful butter or ghee
  • Shredded cheese (it's supposed to be cheddar or American, but I went with mozzarella...as usual)
  • Crumbled GF bread

I stuck all but the last two ingredients in Gretel overnight (~6 hours), then added the cheese and bread this morning.

Verdict: yummy! I have enough ground beef to feed me for at least two days, and this stuff is FILLING. I added a bit too much chicken broth, so it's waterier than I'd like, but that's okay. So now my room smells like meat and my stomach is full!

Cuban proverb of the day: "Barriga llena, corazon contento." ("Full stomach, happy heart"--so true)

Short post today, but I really wanted to put up something on the Ides of March, since I missed pi day.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Make Your Own Wine?

I just found this site that provides instructions for making your own wine. No way! I had no idea this kind of thing could be done; then again, it makes sense--why shouldn't you be able to make cheap alcohol with a few ingredients from the grocery store?

The basic gist of it is this:

  1. Get some cans of grape juice from concentrate (that does not contain dyes, preservatives, etc), sugar, water, champagne yeast, container(s), bleach (for sterilizing equipment before use), and balloons.
  2. Mix the ingredients and pour them into the containers (the guy on the site used gallon-sized water jugs).
  3. Place balloons over the openings of the jugs (to catch the CO2) and let sit for ~2 weeks.

And voila! Large quantities of extremely crappy wine! I'm sure it tastes awful, but this seems like a fun project. I might try it sometime, when I have plenty of space, and grape juice from concentrate is on sale (otherwise a few $2 wine bottles would be cheaper).

Here's the site: http://www.leftofme.com/how-to-brew-cheap-wine/.

I wonder if it could ever be as gross as boxed wine... :-)

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Better than Air Freshener

Wow, I'm a terrible blogger--nearly 2 weeks since my last post! But that's okay. Midterms may have temporarily stopped me, but I'm going to get going again. Huzzah! I haven't made anything particularly cool recently, so I won't be sharing a recipe, just something neat I learned from my awesome parents.

A little while ago, my room was smelling really weird. I think something went bad in the fridge (I just threw out a bunch of stuff in the hopes that one of them was the culprit), but I'm not sure. I really hated that my room smelled funky, so I decided to remedy this situation--without using an air freshener. All I did was throw some water, cinnamon, clove, a bay leaf, and some orange peel into my rice cooker (which I haven't named yet! I can't seem to settle on something that'll stick), and set it to cook. Whenever it came close to boiling over, I just set it to "Keep Warm" for a little while.

My room ended up smelling really nice in a relatively brief amount of time! Yay! The cool thing is that a rice cooker is definitely not necessary--a hot pot would work just as well. All you need is to have the spices available and keep an eye on whatever appliance is being used. It probably would have worked better to use a cinnamon stick instead of ground cinnamon, and some vanilla extract for extra goodness, but I have little use for these, so I haven't purchased them.

Anyway, I'm having a lovely time taking a break from cooking for myself in a cramped dorm room! I love spring break.

(P.S. Even though I sound like one of those super cool crazy partiers who LOVE being social and NEVER spend their weekend nights doing laundry and having Big Bang Theory marathons, I'm not actually partying like these people this spring break.)

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Spices, the Variety of Life

Yesterday, I purchased several spices at EarthFare. Normally, I'd wait until my next Wal-Mart visit (which won't be anytime soon), but they were selling 77g bottles for ~$1.25, so I went ahead and purchased some. The way I see it, I'll be using these through grad school anyway, so I may as well buy them now. I don't have space on my shelves for spices (too many books and hair products), so I've taken to lining spices and other condiments up on my windowsill. So far, I have:

  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Sugar
  • Salt
  • Ground Black Pepper
  • Ground Cinnamon
  • Lemon juice
  • Ghee
  • Decaf instant coffee (cafe con leche!)
  • Ground clove
  • Nutmeg
  • Oregano
  • Mrs. Dash (regular and garlic blends)
  • Bay leaves
  • Parsley
  • Basil
  • Ground ginger
  • Cayenne pepper
  • Rosemary

The last six ones are brand new.

I tried to avoid purchasing these for as long as possible—I figured Mrs. Dash would work pretty well for anything that wouldn't be fine with just salt or garlic. But then I kept running into neat recipes that required various basic spices, especially bay, parsley, and basil. I realized that if I want to make a lot of good meals, I should go ahead and just get these. If anything, they'll last me well into grad school, no?

Anyway, I'm very excited about these! I just made some vegetable broth that tasted quite good, and allowed me to finally finish off the few very depressing celery stalks in my fridge that were no longer fit to be eaten raw. I am so excited—there are many recipes I can't wait to try!

Famous People with Celiac Disease

A quick post today, since I'm 1. busy 2. distracted 3. trying to avoid ranting about my school and how they are being so ridiculous about my meal plan.

A while back (as in, before this blog...which wasn't that long ago), I googled "celebrities with celiac disease." There aren't actually that many famous celiacs (that we know of). But there are a few interesting ones (as well as a few who are GF or wheat-free for other reasons):

  • John F. Kennedy (suspected--he was never actually diagnosed)
  • Victoria Beckham
  • Jim Carrey
  • Katherine, Duchess of Kent. She suffered for years before she finally received the right diagnosis. When asked by the Daily Mail in 1999 about her long history of illness, her reply was simply that "none of us goes through life unscathed".
  • Elizabeth Hasselbeck, of "Survivor" fame. She realized she was gluten-intolerant when, while on "Survivor," she lived mainly on rice and fish and felt much healthier.
  • Sarah Vowell (she is often on NPR and voiced Violet in "The Incredibles").
  • Emmy Rossum. The picture below is of her eating the frosting off of a cupcake that someone at MTV (who didn't wikipedia her, apparently) gave her.

Other famous people include Billy Bob Thornton, Susie Essman, Goldie Hawn, Jane Swift, and others that I found but don't know/care about at all.

Okay, so this is kind of a stupid post, but whatever :-)

This post is also proof that I barely remember HTML. Fail...

Monday, February 22, 2010


Today I'm sharing a link to one of my favorite blogs, by my sister Sofi. It's called Vagamunda, which is Spanish for "vagabond" or "wanderer." It's a pretty unique blog, with a whole slew of different topics. As the description says, her blog is "a chic combination of my passion for travel, fashion, writing, and a little bit of politics with the purpose of transmitting my love for the aforementioned with like-minded individuals."

Post titles have included "The Pashmina: God's Gift to Womankind," "Je Suis Fatigue!", "Comfort Food with History," and "Taxes=Blah and Boring." One of my favorite posts so far begins with:

"It's MLK day in post racism Georgia, so I'm enjoying a day off from school, relishing the result of white guilt and affirmative action."

I love my sister :-)


Sunday, February 21, 2010

Slow Cooker Experiment #2: Weird Chicken

For my second experiment with Gretel, I decided to check out a recipe I'd seen online for pineapple chicken. However, I didn't have half the ingredients (and they didn't look so good anyway) so I found other recipes online, looked around at what I had in my room, and ended up throwing the following into the slow cooker:
  • Chicken (the precooked kind, from the foil-ey packages)
  • Pineapple (canned)
  • Mandarin oranges (canned)
  • Green bell pepper
  • Celery
  • Lemon juice
  • Agave
  • Spicy mustard
  • Onion
  • Black pepper
I have no idea what any of these amounts would be; I just completely eyeballed the whole thing. I also poured in a bit of the juice from the canned fruit. (FYI, the picture is from an experiment a few weeks ago, because I couldn't find a picture that matched the recipe...isn't the gel lovely?)

These all hung out in Gretel for about half an hour on high, until it was time for my ~5 hour lab. I had a nice-ish dinner to go to with some classmates and a teacher about an hour after lab, so my plan was to finish the Southern blot as fast as possible then eat and go to dinner.

There was a twenty-minute break in the lab around two hours before the dinner, so I ran over to my room to turn on Gretel. Oops...instead of turning her off before, I'd set her to low! I mean, everything was fine, just very soggy. At least it wasn't the toaster oven or rice cooker. I self-consciously turned off Gretel, then ran over to lab. When I got back (fyi, the Southern blot worked! Yay!), I poured it on some rice and tried it.

Wow, really, REALLY delicious! The flavors blended together WONDERFULLY. I scarfed it down and had a lovely time at the Honors Institute dinner.

Lessons learned:
  • Always double-check cooking appliances before leaving the dorm.
  • Mustard is a simple, delicious way to add flavor, even to a meal that isn't eaten with the hands.
  • If the plan is to make a dish entitled “________ Chicken” that is not a soup, one package of pre-cooked chicken is not enough to make a decent amount of food.
  • Do NOT leave a dish like this on for most of the day, since the chicken will be overcooked (though still very eatable).
Conclusion: I am DEFINITELY making this again. I will have to figure out how to do the chicken next time (cooked? raw? whole? breasts?). I'll find an actual name for this recipe that isn't something inane like “Pineapple Chicken.”


Thursday, February 18, 2010

Sweet Potato Soup

Mmm…sweet potatoes. Filling, and a welcome break from the regular red potatoes I seem to be having all the time. I’ve been trying to find some way to eat them other than baking (not a huge fan). And while surfing the interweb, I found a recipe for sweet potato soup. I actually combined ingredients from a whole series of different recipes for this one, and ended up using:

  • 2 sweet potatoes
  • about 1 tsp minced garlic
  • 1 diced carrot
  • about 8 oz chicken broth
  • 3/4 cup plain rice milk
  • about 2 Tbs ghee
  • Cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg
  • Salt
  • Agave

First, I peeled and diced the sweet potatoes (with one break halfway through—wow, they are hard to cut), then added garlic, chicken broth, milk, salt, and spices. Immediately, I noticed how weird the whole mixture smelled. I’m going to blame either the garlic or the combination of broth and rice milk.

I put the lid on, set Gretel on high for about 15 minutes to get the temperature up, then set her to low and went to bed. The next morning, the sweet potatoes and carrot were mushy and the whole thing smelled very spicy. A good fragrance, but still weird. I mushed the soup with a fork and spoon. I tried it; the taste was…debatable. I had a minor freakout—two sweet potatoes is a lot to waste if you don’t get to go food shopping very often!—and did my best to come up with a way to rescue this soup-thing before it got too mushy.

Hoping for the best, I added some ghee and agave, as well as more spices, waited for it to cool down, then spooned it into two tupperwares.

I just finished eating this sweet potato soup for lunch. Verdict? A win!

It’s smooth, but still has texture. The spices I keep finding myself using work really well with it, and it’s filling. Next time, I won’t use garlic or rice milk (maybe almond milk instead). I don’t know why I used carrots. It might just have been because they, like sweet potatoes, are orange.

Anyway, I’ll tuck this away for the next time I feel crumby and just want something easy and mild.

Monday, February 15, 2010


Since I had a few apples lying around, a brand new bottle of ground clove, and a neat recipe, I decided to try applesauce as my next foray into slow-cookery.

I found this recipe on About.com:

  • 3 apples, peeled and minced
  • Water
  • Cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg
  • Sugar

If you take the time to actually go to the page and check out the recipe, you'll see that I modified it slightly. Namely, I decided to use way less apples (I don't need 10-12 apples' worth of applesauce), added clove and nutmeg, and made no attempt to gauge the amounts of the other ingredients.

All I did was prepare the apples, pour them in, add the spices and sugar, pour in water (way too much, as I discovered later on), and set Gretel to “Low.” I finished this all at about 10:00 PM and turned Gretel off at about 8:00 AM.

It was pretty good. Sweet (the sugar probably wasn't necessary; I'm not sure why I included it in the first place), spicy, and cozy. Also, it made the room smell comfy and spicy, which was great. (The picture doesn't really capture the essence, as I'm sure you've deduced--the only camera I have is the webcam on my mac.)

I don't know that I'll make it again—I enjoyed it, but not enough to justify peeling three apples (easier said than done) and not being able to use Gretel for 8-10 hours. I might try this with another fruit, though; nothing comes to mind immediately, but I really like the idea of slow-cooking fruit for hours and hours with a bunch of spices.

Chocolate Oatmeal

Breakfast is one of the most important components of a successful day—without it, focusing in class is close to impossible. If you do put in the extra five minutes in the morning, you don't have to plan for a gargantuan lunch, and there's probably health benefits to it and all that. Whether you eat it while walking to class, during class, sitting in your room before class, or all three (like me), breakfast should be eaten. It's just something you should do.

Unfortunately, I often don't have my act together enough to actually make a decent breakfast, so I usually end up eating cereal or almonds out of a quart-sized plastic bag for the first hour and a half of my day. But at least once a week, I manage to make oatmeal, which I nuke, then stick in a foam cup with a plastic spoon and sprint off to class. I use the EarthFare brand Instant Oatmeal, which has yet to make me sick (because of contamination)!

The following usually end up in the oatmeal:

  • Almond or rice milk.
  • Agave syrup
  • Frozen blueberries (which have the most awful texture because my freezer doesn't actually freeze—I don't know why I put them in, since they taste terrible). Strawberries would probably be very good instead.

It's really very simple—microwave the milk for about a minute, mix in oatmeal until it looks like a good consistency (err on the side of too thin), microwave again, then pour in agave and a few squares of dark chocolate broken up into pieces (and fruit, if you wish). I put in craisins this morning, and they were quite good. I might try just cinnamon and extra milk sometime, when I'm NOT craving sugar like a madwoman.

Yes, there is probably something wrong with having chocolate for breakfast. But I have yet to find a real reason, so until then...

This combination is quite good. Easy, hot, filling, and sweet. Curbs the chocolate craving for at least a few hours. Highly recommended.

*Note: Be careful about oatmeal. Cross-contamination is often an issue--don't buy a huge container unless you know that the particular brand won't make you sick. I'd also be careful about having the flavored kind. If they contain "natural flavors," odds are they include soy.
**Note #2: The picture above is nothing like what I ate this morning. I just wanted a picture of oatmeal and picked the second one that popped up on Google Images...

[EDIT: I've been told repeatedly to stop eating oatmeal, since it is definitely way too contaminated, so as of March I've been staying away from this and sticking to other grains. But the general ideas in this post can apply to other breakfast cereals anyway :-)]

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Slow Cooker Experiment #1: Chicken Soup

As a future scientist and overall lazy, hungry student, my instinct is to have fun playing around with things I know very little about. Here's my first experiment with Gretel (I name my appliances). (FYI, the picture below is of a slow cooker SIMILAR to Gretel; I couldn't find the same one online and I don't have a good camera around.)

At the urging of my mother and a fellow digestively-challenged friend, I got a slow cooker last Monday. So Wednesday afternoon, when I found myself bored and hungry, I decided to continue putting off homework and put my new gadget to use to make chicken soup.

Eschewing any official recipes (I mean, it's chicken soup...simple, right?), I chopped up 2 celery stalks, 4 carrots, two red potatoes, and about 1/3 of an onion. I stuck these ingredients, as well as some minced garlic, a package of cooked chicken, an undefined amount of rice, salt, and extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO), poured in three 8-oz boxes of organic chicken broth, and set Gretel to "High."

After about 2.5 hours, I peeked in. I probably shouldn't have put in the rice so early, since it had disintegrated into tiny flakes. "It's all right," I said to myself. "It's not like I can thicken it with flour anyway--this is actually serendipitous!" I added some spinach for good measure (and because I've had it in my fridge for over a week) and waited.

Two hours later, the vegetables didn't look like they were going to be softening all the way anytime soon. So I turned off Gretel and called it a night.

Thursday morning, I decided that I didn't have time to wait around and see if the carrots and potatoes were going to soften, so I poured about two cups of the now-gunky mixture into my rice cooker, added some water so that it wouldn't congeal, cooked it for about twenty minutes, then poured it into a disposable tupperware (releasing all sorts of toxins, of course) for lunch. I had this and apple sauce for lunch before my five-hour lab.

It was really good. The rice had completely mixed with the broth by now, giving the "soup" a creamy, soothing consistency. Later in the day, I added an egg to the soup while it was simmering in my rice cooker, both to add protein and to get rid of the eggs that might already be going bad in my fridge.

Anyway, I ended up eating this sludge up until Saturday morning, which was probably unhealthy since 1. repeating food for three days is not good 2. I didn't refrigerate it. But whatever, it's healthier than what I usually end up eating.

Lessons learned:

  • Add rice closer to the end unless the intent is to make something that is viscous enough to act as mortar.
  • Don't make enough "soup" to feed the cast of Lost.
  • Experimenting with food is fun, messy, and delicious (but I already knew this).

Conclusion: Gretel is pretty awesome, and I intend to use her pretty often, though I might think about following a real recipe next time.

Snaps for experimentation!