Let there be pie

It’s 10:45 pm, Monday night. Monday 03-14, Pi(e) day. I breeze into my kitchen after a long day of work and couldn’t NOT make pie on Pi(e) day. I’d been going back and forth on whether to go to the hassle most of the afternoon and evening. When I was still at work at 8:00 pm, I almost convinced myself that I didn’t really need to do it. After all, I have two manuscripts to finish editing, graduate student qualifying exams to review, undergraduate letters of recommendation to write and who knows what else. Pie could wait until another time.

But a thought struck my mind.

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It’s the start of spring – I might actually be able to grab some rhubarb from the store and wouldn’t that pair wonderfully with the ginger ice cream I had made a few day ago? Ahhh, the allure of rhubarb is simply too tempting for me to ignore. Store number one – out of luck, I live in Georgia now and wasn’t entirely sure that I would spot it at all. However, store number two (I love residing within walking distance to not one, or two but three grocery stores!) revealed a few vibrant pink stalks. I quickly grabbed the few remaining pieces and silently cursed (or not-so-silently, but hey, I was at the Murder Kroger). Not nearly enough for a full pie. Now what? Another stroll through the produce section had me stopping at the peaches. And the third pass through at the blackberries. Alright, I may be a little off script, but I think, just maybe, not only will it not be a complete disaster, but it may actually be quite good.

I’m quickly and assuredly making decisions as my pie idea forms in my mind – it borderlines on manic. I choose a buttermilk crust since I have some leftover buttermilk from a batch of biscuits I made over the weekend. Yes, I think that should do the trick. Given extra wet nature of the rhubarb, peaches and berries – I think I’ll not only par-bake the bottom crust, but seal it with an egg wash as well. Because the difference between an okay pie and a transformative one is often in the details of the crust. Oh! I’ll do a lattice top – won’t that be pretty! So, perhaps I’ll do 1.5x the recipe for the crust. No big deal.

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I toss together my coveted rhubarb, a few bordering on underripe peaches and the handful of blackberries along with some sugar, flour, a dash of cinnamon and a couple of teaspoons of grated ginger and give it all a good toss and let it meld while the pie dough chills. A couple of cocktails, a load of dishes and the beginnings of a long and rambling blog post happen.

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Pie, no matter how well done, is impressive and needs to be shared, if only to glory in the accolades it will undoubtedly receive. Perhaps because of the underlying assumption that it is a brave soul who attempts to put together such a concoction of pastry and fruit. The dough could be too tough or crack when rolled, the fruit too watery or worse, sickly sweet from adding too much sugar, the ratios of the two could be completely unbalanced. The sheer thought of baking a pie is overwhelming enough to scare people away. Consequently, offering pie alà mode the day after Pi(e) Day was met with an absurdly high level of enthusiasm from members and friends of my lab.

For the inexperienced, pie seems impossible – and rhubarb-peach-blackberry pie made up on the fly, particularly when paired with homemade fresh ginger ice cream (a stroke of genius) even more so. A number of students expressed awe and wonderment at the ability to tackle such a task, followed by a sad statement regarding their lack of confidence in this arena.

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My actions Monday night are reminiscent of the recent days that I’ve spent in my lab. We finally arrived at spring break during my first semester of teaching undergraduates (the semester prior was dedicated to graduate teaching) and it was a busy, and sometimes impossible to maintain semester. I desperately craved a break and contemplated renting a cabin in the north Georgia mountains to escape from it all. Yet, in the end, I spent most of that time in the lab after a seemingly endless hiatus. Regardless of the time spent away, I storm into the lab and begin tying up a number of experimental loose ends.

I’d forgotten how much at home I feel in the lab. I certainly had forgotten the sense of accomplishment one has at the end of the day spent on your feet, running around from the warm room (our yeast like to grow at 30º C) to the bench, to the autoclave, to the glassware cabinet, to the PCR machine, to the centrifuge, to the gel electrophoresis rig, etc. There is an underlying ease and confidence to my actions. It feels good. And if the gel of my PCR is any indication, I haven’t lost my lab hands. Not only is it comforting to spend time back in the lab – it’s genuinely fun.

It’s difficult, after nearly a decade of time spent in the lab, to remember that it wasn’t always second nature. That the very reason that I can waltz into the lab after six months away and nearly immediately encounter experimental success is precisely because I’ve had a decade to slowly, but surely, hone my skills, encountering a turning point that remains imperceivable to me as to when exactly it occurred. One of the more challenging aspects of my job is to to teach people how to think scientifically and importantly, to not judge too quickly when they are not immediately successful. Or to judge too harshly when a young scientist can’t immediately pick up on the nuances of an experiment or how to optimize a protocol or manage their time.

{Note: there are MANY new aspects of my position that I attempt with complete uncertainty – and am learning to forgive myself for not knowing how to do all of them with expertise. But life in the lab? That I know something about.}

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What’s it like to be unsure? To not know, or to carry the confidence that what you’ll do will end well? Intellectually, I know I that I did not arrive in the lab (or the kitchen for that matter) fully formed. But now it seems foreign to me, the notion that I didn’t always have such a deep intimacy of my study subject or, when in the kitchen, flavor profiles and techniques or to have a repertoire of resources and accumulated knowledge to draw upon. In hindsight, there are a few things that must have contributed to my development. 1) The sheer repetition of action and consistency in results contributed significantly to my confidence. 2) Learning who to trust with protocols/recipes – just because something is available online does not it will yield reliable outcomes Who are the scientists/chefs that I respect and want to build my own work off of? 3) Appropriately testing a technique and establishing a baseline before making educated modifications – but not to be afraid to try something a little different and outside of my comfort zone. 4) And finally, embracing the notion that sometimes I will fail. And possibly fail spectacularly, knowing that the failure is worthwhile because I will have learned something critical.

I struggle to find ways to extend my patience with naïve scientists, to remember to acknowledge the small victories and to cultivate an environment in which failing is a beautiful learning opportunity. To be able to remind them that the very process of doing something is as important as the result. That we may not know the outcome as we embark on a new project, but, that we can hopefully navigate logically and with our collective knowledge through the murkiness to a breathtaking destination.

And when that fails, sweeten them up with pie.

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Rhubarb-Peach-Blackberry Pie with Buttermilk Crust

Buttermilk Crust:

  • 1 7/8 (aka 2 cups – 1 T) cups all purpose flour
  • 3 teaspoons sugar
  • 3/8 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 12 tablespoons butter, cubed
  • ½ cup plus 1 tablespoon buttermilk
  • 1 egg, beaten with a little water for egg wash

Filling:

  • 2 ½ cups rhubarb, chopped in ½ inch pieces
  • 3 peaches, peeled and chopped in ½ inch pieces
  • 2 cups blackberries
  • 1 cup sugar
  • ¼ cup flour
  • 1 tablespoon arrowroot starch
  • 2 teaspoons grated ginger
  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

In a food processor, pulse the flour with the sugar and salt. Add the butter and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse meal with some pea-size pieces remaining. Drizzle the buttermilk on top and pulse until the dough just comes together. Turn the dough out onto a work surface, gather up any crumbs and divide into two disks – one a little larger than the other. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate until well chilled, about 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. On a lightly floured work surface, roll out the larger disk of dough to a 12-inch round, a scant 1/4 inch thick. Ease the dough into a 9-inch glass pie plate. Trim the overhanging dough to 1 inch, fold it under itself and crimp the dough decoratively. Line the crust with parchment paper and fill with pie weights or dried beans. Bake the crust in the lower third of the oven for about 20 minutes, until barely set. Remove the parchment paper and pie weights. Brush with egg wash, reserving remaining wash. Bake for 15  minutes longer, until the crust is lightly browned. Let cool on a rack. Leave the foil strips on the crust rim. Reduce the oven temperature to 350°.

Toss together all ingredients for the filling. Pour filling into par-baked crust. On a lightly floured work surface, roll out the smaller disk of dough to a ~12-inch round, a scant 1/4 inch thick. Using a pizza cutter or knife, cut into ten, 1-inch strips. Place strips in a lattice pattern (5 in one direction and 5 perpendicular). Brush with remaining egg wash. Cover the edge of the crust with strips of foil and bake for 45-60 minutes until top lattice is browned and filling is bubbling. Let cool.

Serve with homemade fresh ginger ice cream spiked with some Au Thym Sauvage from Farigoule de Haute Provence (and why it has a place in my liquor cabinet is a story for another time). Although, to be fair, most any type of ice cream will suffice.

 

Scientific Style

I’ve fallen out of the practice of writing. It’s gotten to the point where I actually fear having to do it. There’s a manuscript hanging over my head, a paper that I desperately need to publish so that I’m known for something other than finding Candida albicans haploids (although, to be fair, this study also regards ploidy variation). More importantly, to wrap up the loose ends of my postdoctoral research and develop my own independent program.IMG_4027

If only I could wish that the words would write themselves. Except the paper is already written, had even been submitted and subject to review. At first glance, the rejection was hardly a blow – all reviewers agreed it was technically sound, however there were mixed feelings to the degree in which it advanced our knowledge and thus, wasn’t impactful enough for that journal. The solution seemed simple: a few quick edits and submit to a lower-tier journal.

That was five months ago. It shames me to admit that, I don’t usually operate at snail speed. Granted, that first semester as a faculty member, combined with the cross-country relocation was a substantial transition. Unbelievably, in that time, I set up a functioning lab, hired a technician and now have experiments in progress (!!!). But the manuscript continues to sit stagnant on my desktop. I usually circumvent writers block by finding an existing document and revising, editing and re-writing the whole damn thing to transform it into something distinct from the original. Not so with this paper.

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The brick wall my head keeps pounding into? I took the reviews personally. Strike that: I took the slightly less-than-glowing review personally. The positive review didn’t resonate in the least. As a naïve graduate student, some time ago now, I remember being told to not take these things personally. And most times, I think do a pretty good job of it. I’ve internalized that perspective to the point that I find myself frequently qualifying the comments I provide with the ubiquitous “it’s not you, it’s the science” statement. But is that the truth? I enthusiastically stand on my soapbox, advocating that scientists are individuals with interests and lives beyond just their science. Yet, that sentiment does not diminish the degree in which the work that we do; the research we perform and the context in which we convey the results and their significance reflects who we are.

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Scientific style has been on the forefront of my mind as I’ve been making decisions after decision on establishing the lab and the direction to move towards. So the “it’s not the science, it’s the lack of impact” comment struck an overworked and exposed nerve, disabling me in a way that I am not proud of. It wasn’t that I received that particular review, I support the rigor of peer-review, it’s that I knew it wasn’t an unfair statement. The paper, as previously submitted, DID lack meaningful insight and failed to emphasize the novelty of the results. I take full responsibility for its lackluster appearance. Ultimately, I appreciate the rejection – it has given me the opportunity to give the paper a desperately needed makeover.

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Why shouldn’t my scientific writing and research have a signature style? As with so many other elements of my life – I like being distinctive and striking to the beholder. I’m currently obsessed with residing at the intersection of form and function. Too ‘functional’ and you end up with boring ideas and dry writing. Too much form and flair and you run the risk of losing substance and credibility. I’ve spent hours crafting a single paragraph and months upon months playing with data visualization. Finding the balance between form and function not takes time, but an enormous amount of work, all in the hopes that it looks effortless.

In this day and age of ‘publish or perish’ in academics, my proclivity towards staying true to my style (not to mention my idealism towards mentoring) will certainly prevent me from being my most productive. I know that. But for me, external metrics (like number of papers published) are rarely sufficient for my sense of satisfaction. Up to this point, my own high expectations have guided me in my career, with measurable success. We’ll see if this holds true in the future.

Roots

I am a biology professor at Emory University and live in Atlanta.

These are words that only reluctantly roll off my tongue – I still expect to wake up and find out this isn’t my life. In my defense, it’s been less than a month – I mean, I haven’t even changed my Facebook info or Twitter tagline (not to suggest that these activities make these facts ‘real’). Now, this isn’t my first turn on the relocation merry-go-round. A decade ago, I moved from the Pacific Northwest to North Carolina. Five and half years later, I moved to the Midwest. Now, I’m in the South. Welcome to the life of an academic. To be honest, when I moved away from the Pacific Northwest I had no idea what I was getting into.

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This move feels different; it has the weight of being a critical junction in my life. The intentions of it are far different than any of my previous moves. As an adult, the majority of my decisions have been career-driven. Why else would I have moved to the frozen tundra of the Upper Midwest? Mostly because I knew it wasn’t going to be forever. But this move? This move has the potential to be my last. That’s a complicated thought.

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In many ways, this department, this institution, this city and corner of the country, all feel like a natural ‘fit’ for me. I don’t think I can clearly articulate all the factors that go into that statement. It feels good and it feels right. When you know, you know. With the exceptions being of course, the many things that I don’t know. Regardless, I am incredibly lucky to be in this situation when so many other academics are not.

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Still, it’s more than a little scary to start again in a new place. When I moved to North Carolina I was 23, on the brink of adulthood, single and beginning a journey with people who would end up being major fixtures in my life. When I moved to Minneapolis, I was 29, no longer single, and infiltrating an established lab and community that when I left it still didn’t feel like I completely belonged. Now I’m 33, single again (and wise enough to know that my life is rich with my other relationships) in a new city with barely a pre-existing connection and entering a whole new realm of my life. I’m excited to get started and anxious to find my way.

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These thoughts have been swirling in my mind for the last six months, every since I got the phone call offering me THE job of my dreams. And the only wrinkle is that it seems as though I won’t be returning home. Home, of course, being the Pacific Northwest. Every year it seems I wax nostalgic over this special place – there are so many things about it that resonate with me. So, it’s hard to think that even after a decade away, I won’t be settling there.

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I strategically planned my move to be able to have a few weeks on the West Coast, buffering my transition from postdoc to professor. Partly to give myself a break so that when I started, I really started ‘fresh.’ But more so to give me much-needed time with the place and the people that have shaped who I’ve become. To remind myself where I came from and dig around my roots before transplanting myself yet again.

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I didn’t think I had a childhood home. We moved out of the house I was an infant in, lived briefly with my aunt and uncle before moving to a house when I started kindergarten, and then built another one when I was in high school, temporarily living with my grandfather during the construction. Now my parents live in yet a different house. All in in Olympia, I grant you and always surrounded by family, but I have never held sentimental value in the structures I grew up in.

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So it hit me like a ton of bricks when I spent a few days in our cabin in the southern Cascades. I hadn’t been back there since I moved away in 2004 – my trips home have always seemed too short to warrant a 2-hour drive into the mountains. It was like stepping into a time capsule of my youth. I had no idea of the enormity to which I missed this place and how much my family (including most of my extended family) is enveloped in it. My dad had spent many nights and weekends designing the cabin and the entire family pitched in to build the thing from the ground up. The avocado green stove! The country blue couches! The comforter covered in primary-colored hearts from when I was five! I’m pretty sure the décor hasn’t been touched since we first built it 25 years ago. And while, incredibly out of date, it was immensely reassuring to be back. The floodgates opened and the memories stormed in. My aunt burning her eyebrows cooking bacon on the barbecue. Weekend ski trips with the cousins. Jumping off of the 35-foot Jody’s Bridge during on sweltering 95-degree Labor Day weekend. Driving down the forest service roads with Dad towards our next hike. Games of gin rummy on the porch. It was all waiting for me, in this tiny cabin that I had returned to.

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One day I climbed up to Sunrise Peak for a 360-degree view including: Mt. Adams, Mt. Rainier and Mt. St. Helen’s. There’s nothing quite like being surrounded by majestic mountains to gain some perspective. On another day I hiked through old growth forest into Packwood Lake to reconnect with my motivation to study biology (who knew that a girl who like play in the woods would end up studying the sex lives of yeast!). It was exactly what I was hoping to find and helped me garner the strength to move forward in this next adventure.

Blackberry-Hazelnut Torte

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Can you imagine a dessert any more ‘Pacific Northwest’ than this? I am more than a little late posting this recipe, blackberry season is long past us (I’ve been slightly busy in recent weeks – hello, I’m new faculty!). If you are anything like my family than you have squirreled away some of the deep purple jewels in your freezer. Plus – it uses 8 (8!!!) egg whites, making it an excellent justification to make two quarts of ice cream so not to waste the yolks.
 
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5 ounces hazelnut flour (alternatively, you can toast and finely grind whole nuts)
10.5 ounces (1 1/2 cups) granulated sugar, divided
4.5 ounces (1 cup) all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 ounces (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter
2 tablespoons bourbon
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
8 large egg whites
2 cups wild blackberries
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Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour a 10-inch springform pan.
 
Whisk hazelnut and AP flours, ¾ cup (5.25 ounces) sugar and salt together in a bowl.
 
In a small saucepan, cook the butter over moderate heat until lightly browned, 3 to 4 minutes. Let cool slightly, then stir in the bourbon and vanilla.
 
Using a standing electric mixer, beat the egg whites until they form very soft peaks.
Gradually add the remaining 3/4 cup of sugar and continue beating until the whites hold soft peaks. Alternately fold the flour mixture and browned butter into the egg whites in 3 batches. Gently fold in the blackberries.
 
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for about 50 minutes, or until the cake is golden and just beginning to pull away from the side. Let cool slightly on a rack, then remove the side of the pan and let cool completely. Transfer the cake to a large plate to serve.

Goodbye Minneapolis

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A chapter of my life ended last Friday. It’s been an odd feeling, saying goodbye when I am so ready to move on. It’s no secret that Minneapolis and I have had an extremely complicated relationship. There are things that I truly adore about the city (i.e. the best bike commute in the world) and the people I’ve grown to be friends with and yet, this is a place that will never be close to my heart. No doubt a valuable period in my life, but one where the bright spots shine poke through the cover of bleakness.

Over the weekend while most of my earthly belongings headed towards Georgia, I sprinted into to the open arms of the Pacific Northwest and my family for a short intermission before I begin life in Atlanta. I packed the car with my most valuable treasures (the two cats, my new and fabulous bicycle and the contents of my spice cupboard) and drove 1700 hundred miles in my 10-year old car with my 23-year old cousin to Olympia.

Somewhere in the middle of North Dakota an epiphany struck. This road trip, and more importantly, my postdoc in Minneapolis was a constant tug-of-war between ‘making good time’ and ‘having a good time’.

I chose my postdoc for the science and for the mentor, despite the fact that it meant that I would have to live in the Midwest (in contrast to most of the other postdocs in the lab who wanted those things AND had strong familial ties in the region). So from the outset, my postdoc was simply a strategic hoop to jump through to land a coveted faculty position, wherever that may be. I didn’t set out to ‘have a good time’ but rather to ‘make good time.’ So I shied away from making friends and making Minneapolis home, as that would take time away from my scientific and academic goals.

I’m not one who believes that scientists live in isolation and are wasting time when not working. I took time off, travelled and spent many a weekend with my dearest friends that I’ve accumulated over the course of my life to either celebrate major life events or to simply hang out on the couch with a glass of wine. These were the people that I had already invested in, value beyond all else and whom I wanted to spend my time with whenever possible. So I flitted off to Chicago, Austin, California, Durham, Olympia, Paris, Portland, Boston, etc. to keep those people in my life. All at the expense of making ties in Minneapolis.

The same is true for my academic community. The University of Minnesota was simply a stop along the way. As a postdoc, it’s difficult not to feel like a ghost. You sneak in during the middle of the night (your start date is almost never tied to the academic calendar) and you pass people in the halls without acknowledgement. I just did not have the capacity to invest in the department. Resolving that conflict was hard – I was deeply committed to my intellectual community as a graduate student and I am looking forward to making my mark in the future. But in this time and place, during my postdoc, I couldn’t do it and felt guilty for not trying harder.

So I ‘made good time.’ My one and only postdoc was four and a half years long – a blink of an eye in the current academic market. In a time when a lot of people are leaving academia, doing 6-7 year postdocs or multiple postdocs, I have been extremely successful and even so, I felt like this took too long and there have been costs inextricably tied with my success. My life could have taken a different turn a couple of years ago and I would have left Minneapolis at that time. I have fretted incessantly (and unnecessarily) that things will fall through at the last minute while preparing for this move. This person who I am, who I’ve become is due entirely because of my past experiences, which I consider to be a result of the context and my decisions at any given time. And that particular turn let me take the opportunity to invest, just a smidgen, in Minneapolis. As such, this goodbye is more complicated than I anticipated. Yet I revel in it: my life has been rich, varied and complex and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Goodbye Minneapolis. You haven’t been my favorite, but you have been important.

Head Games

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There’s no metaphor tied to this salad. No anxious, overwrought voice in my head that asks ‘How can I completely overthink this dish to best represent my emotions?’ Don’t worry – I’ve barely scratched the surface of my food-as-therapy inclinations. But here and now, this is just a salad. In summers past, I’ve played the ‘how do I use all my vegetables before the next box arrives’ game. Not so this summer – I’m leaving Minneapolis in just FIVE DAYS (!!!) and now is right when the season is hitting its stride. So, to replace the CSA game, I’ve developed a new one over the past several weeks: Clean out the pantry before I move!

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I never meant to have farro in my kitchen. I accidentally bought it during one shopping trip when I meant to get freekah (for the most amazing pilaf), but as always happens when I shop on my way home from work, I forgot my grocery list and relied on my memory. Turns out, my memory isn’t always the most reliable source of information. My pantry has been harboring farro as a fugitive ever since.

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I love a good salad (even if most of you must think I only eat ice cream) only they frequently leave me craving a cookie by mid-afternoon. Particularly at this time of year when I am cycling 6.5 miles to get to campus. But this salad – oh this salad! Who knew something made up on a whim some random summer evening while Skyping with the family would leave me so smitten. It delightfully manages to keep my hunger at bay. Not only that, but it maintains its integrity over several days as the farro just keeps soaking up the juices from the cucumber, tomato and corn.

A win by all accounts.

Summer Farro Salad 

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1 cup farro
2 cups vegetable stock
 
¼ cup lemon juice
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
½ teaspoon black pepper
 
3 ears worth of corn kernels (removed from cob)
2-3 shallots, diced
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon coriander
 
1 pint grape tomatoes, halved
1 cucumber, chopped
6 oz feta cheese, crumbled
1 bunch arugula, chopped
3 tablespoons mint, chopped
 
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In a medium pot bring farro and vegetable stock to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer, cover and cook for about 20 minutes, until tender. Drain remaining cooking liquid. While farro is cooking, whisk together extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice, salt, sugar and pepper. Toss with warm farro.
 
In a saucepan, heat olive oil and cook shallots until softened, ~5 minutes. Add corn kernels and coriander and cook 5 minutes more. Toss with the farro and add tomatoes, cucumber and feta cheese. Serve atop a bed of arugula and garnish with mint.