Friday, December 29, 2017

That's So Pittsburgh: the Maxo Vanka murals

After Christmas, friend JHR invited me to a docent-led tour of the Maxo Vanka murals at St. Nicholas Church in Millvale. The first of two Croatian Catholic Churches in Pittsburgh suffered a fire in 1927. After being rebuilt, the walls were painted white. Then a new priest knew someone who knew a Croatian artist who had fled pre-WWII Europe to New York City with his American wife and daughter. Vanka (1889-1963) came to Millvale for 8 weeks in 1937 to paint murals on the walls just in time for the 10-year re-dedication of the church. He came back in 1943 for a few more months to paint more. In 1951 he returned to paint symbols on the choir loft.

Behind the altar, Vanka painted a Croatian-inflected Byzantine Madonna and Child with Croatian immigrants at their feet. Around the walls, he contrasted images of Croatian mothers mourning sons killed during World War I with immigrant mothers mourning sons who died in industrial accidents. He also depicted the Evangelists with a silver-leaf background that used to be behind Mary and Jesus, before a re-paint in the 1970s. I'm not such a fan of the silver, but apparently the mural preservation society hopes to restore the original look. Over the last several years, seven conservation artists (all women) have painstakingly cleaned and brightened many of the murals. They have also rigged up a fancy LED lighting system.

Some of the images Vanka created in 1937 and especially in 1941 are pretty avant garde, but the weirder ones he put towards the back of the sanctuary or on the ceiling.

Above the large creche you can see the fairly conventional crucifixion scene. (Lighting was hard.)

Here you can see the paintings being highlighted around the stained-glass windows. That's Injustice there on the right, wearing a gas mask and one blood-red glove, bearing a bloody sword and uneven scales. Below on the right is the angel of Justice, wearing white and holding up even scales. I rather liked her.

Above on the left is the Pieta, with Mary holding Jesus' body off the cross. You can see that the church was still decorated beautifully for Christmas with white lights and red and white poinsettias.

Here's one more for you, a sickly green Jesus being crucified on a twentieth-century battlefield. It's the kind of thing that was getting artists purged over in Europe, but here Vanka was safe to make his critique of war and class warfare. My photography is obviously amateur; it's much better to see the murals in person.

Editor's Note: You might also like my posts about an eating tour of the Strip District or St. Paul Cathedral's summer organ series.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Eating our way through the 2017 winter holidays

This Christmas has been marked by delicious but under-documented meals. Here are some guest-pleasing recipes from my kitchen to yours. The first and last come from my oldest cookbook, a handwritten compilation of recipes from my college suities. My New Year's Resolution is to cook from more of the recipes I own in a variety of books and on note cards collected at my bridal shower. Of course you can find all the delicious details right here.

Stuffed Chicken Breasts

boneless, skinless chicken breasts
fresh basil leaves
grated mozzarella cheese
1/2 cup chicken bouillon
2 tbsp prepared mustard
minced garlic to taste
cooking oil

1. Assemble the ingredients. Heat the oven to 350 and some oil in the pan.

2. Cut the chicken breasts into thirds. I slice off the long "flap" on the side and then cut the remaining half-heart crosswise. Try to get lumps of meat that are roughly the same volume, if different shapes. Score the long pieces lengthwise to make them more flexible and cut a pocket into the thicker chunks.

3. Stuff with a layer of prosciutto, then 1-2 basil leaves, then a generous pinch of mozzarella. Roll up the long pieces or pinch closed the pockets and secure with 2-3 toothpicks. It's okay if a little of the stuffing leaks out, but try to protect the insides as much as possible.

4. As you complete each ball-o'-chicken goodness, place in frying pan to brown on as many sides as possible. Rotate them in between securing the other pieces. When each is sufficiently browned, transfer to the baking pan.

5. Once all balls have been browned, pop them in the oven to cook a further 20 minutes. Meanwhile, add bouillon to the frying pan and scrape up all the caramelized bits. Add mustard, garlic to taste, and any remaining basil leaves or prosciutto, cut into strips. Let cook down ~5 minutes.

6. Serve with noodles, a veg, and a warning about the toothpicks to your guests!

For dessert you can offer a fruit salad and/or (almost) vegan brownies.

Fruit Salad with Cranberry Sauce

pineapple + any fruit you might have on hand
I used 1 pear and 1 apple, while the recipe suggested oranges and kiwis. Banana would also work.
1 pomegranate
bib lettuce
2 cups raw cranberries
1/3 cup water
1/2? cup juice (the recipe recommended orange, but grape is what we had)
<1 cup="" p="" sugar="">
1. Pull up something to watch on your laptop, such as a Star Wars movie, or a M*A*S*H marathon.

2. Line the serving container(s) with lettuce leaves.

3. Chop the fruit. I did not find cutting up my first pineapple as difficult as I thought it would be.

4. Retrieve the seeds from inside the pomegranate. I did find this task about as difficult as I thought it would be. Start by scoring the outside of the fruit on its six ridges. Next work your fingers into the grooves and tear the fruit open. Fill a large bowl halfway with water. Pick out the seeds while holding the segments under water. The seeds are supposed to sink and the pulpy parts float. Then skim the surface for the detritus, pour out the water, et voila, pomegranate seeds! Sprinkle on top of the fruit.

5. Boil the cranberries and water for ~5 minutes, or until the berries start to pop. Take them off the heat and mix in the juice and sugar. Let cool. Then push through a strainer, making sure to mash all the berries. You can save the skins for toast or pork chops, but the sauce you should cool in the fridge about 2 hours.

6. Dress the salad just before serving, otherwise the sauce will stain the fruit red (as demonstrated above).

(Almost) Vegan Brownies

1 cup unsweetened applesauce
1 cup white sugar
1 tsp vanilla
3/4 cup flour
1/3 cup cocoa powder
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup (vegan) chocolate chips

1. Heat oven to 350. Grease a 9"x9" baking pan. If you are baking for a vegan, use something other than butter, otherwise they are (almost) vegan.

2. Mix first 3 ingredients in one bowl and the rest in another. Fold wet into dry, then add the chips. Pour into pan. Place into oven for 20-25 minutes. You know it's done when a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out mostly clean. I would rather err on the slightly undercooked side for the gooeyness.

3. Cool before slicing. Despite having no eggs, these make a really "cake-y" brownie. By the time I wrote this blog post, there were no survivors for photographic purposes.

Friday, December 8, 2017

What Residency Looks Like XI: Self-Care

This time last year, I was burned out. Working 12+-hour days six days week for three months, sometimes I felt as if the only thing I enjoyed all day was the smell of my conditioner in the shower in the morning. This year my schedule is much lighter: for the last two months, I have gone in later, come home earlier, had free weekends, and worked out twice a week. I am also able to recognize burnout and feel like I would be more likely to ask for help this time around. Here are a few things I am doing for self-care as the weather turns colder:

  • Cozy winter accessories: if I have to leave the house at dark o'clock, then I want to do it with a totally unstylish knit hat pulled over my still-damp hair and ears. I'm still wearing my famous rainbow scarf, but I am now on about my thirtieth pair of soft winter gloves.
  • Listening to all the Harry Potter books on CD: suddenly I look forward to my commute with the daring adolescent trio from Hogwarts instead of depressing news on the radio. When I finish a book, I watch the movie. Hilariously I've gotten the same aghast reaction from most people I've told this to (including a stranger walking ahead of me on the sidewalk): Yes, I read all the books when they first came out (15-20 years ago!), and I have already seen all the movies. It's still enjoyable to relive the magic.
  • Leaving early: last year I tried to attend lunch conference before driving to my weekly afternoon clinic, and I almost invariably found myself speeding to arrive on time for teaching and my first patient. This year I have given up on lunch conference on my clinic day, as it usually takes me 45 minutes to commute out of town. Instead, I arrive with 15 minutes to eat my lunch in peace, check email, and review my charts. Building this buffer into my day has improved my mood at the start of clinic as well.
  • Reading before bedtime: over the summer I was diagnosed with bruxism (tooth grinding), which I believe accounts for my neck stiffness in the morning (my pillows have been exonerated!). I can only do so much to change the large-life stressors I assume underlie this unconscious behavior, but I can smooth things around the edges. Unless I'm bone tired, I will lie on a heating pad and read a few pages of some book. Almost two months later, I am still working my way through this book.
What are you doing for self-care these days?