My friend Autumn recently pointed out an article in The New York Times all about living alone. Not like me in my city apartment, but like folks who choose to be fiercely independent and move somewhere isolated where they can truly be away from it all. The author, Sarah Maslin Nir, profiles three individuals (all men, interestingly enough) and discusses their compulsion to live in isolation. One man describes a feeling of freedom when you’re by yourself: “you don’t have to answer to anybody.” There’s also a feeling of self-sufficiency. Others choose a reclusive lifestyle as a political statement. A 27-year-old British man spent the last year living in a hut he built in Sweden as a way of being environmentally responsible. Regardless of the justification (and I suppose there doesn’t really need to be one) “Embracing the Life of Solitude” made me really think about what it means to deliberately choose to be by yourself.
Now that desire for extreme solitude isn’t a feeling I can relate to. While I am enjoying living alone, I will ultimately want someone to share moments with. But I will say that lately I’ve surprised myself. I haven’t freaked out (totally) like I thought I would and I haven’t hid in bed with the curtains drawn. When I’m here in the apartment I often turn on the TV for background noise, touch base with friends and family on the phone, and have a pretty deliberately jam-packed calendar. So solitude it’s not. But I kind of like the small changes that I’ve discovered in the cadence of my days: I go to bed later for some strange reason, I’m reading much more, making tea and sitting on my little stoop, chatting with my neighbors and not rushing home right after work, meeting up with new friends and being more spontaneous. All good things. Oh, and yes, I’ve been known to throw in the towel and eat pudding for dinner. I can’t recommend it enough. When you’re inclined to throw in the towel–whether it’s choosing a summer of solitude or eating a Southern dessert for dinner (and then breakfast the next morning), I’d say by all means. Because –at least for me– there’s no one around to tell you not to or to judge the nutritional composition of your dinner. It doesn’t matter if it sounds good to anyone else. Remember when you were little and the saying ‘you’re not the boss of me’ was your biggest weapon? Ya, kinda like that.
I think the first time I had banana pudding was actually at Magnolia Bakery in New York. I’m embarrassed to even talk about it because I was one of those twenty-somethings in line for the cupcake they saw on Sex in the City. Have you been to the bakery? It’s actually quite likeable in a very vintage Americana way with colorful cake-stands and tablecloths and really darn good cupcakes. But that night we knew we wouldn’t be back for a long time, so in addition to cupcakes I bought a few not-so-memorable cookies, a piece of pie, and a to-go container of banana pudding. We sat on the bench across the street, kicked off our shoes, and a quiet fell on the street corner as we sampled each treat. We ambled back to the hotel on that humid night in New York with sticky fingers and smiles. I’ll never forget that banana pudding: super creamy with the ripest bananas and piles of fluffy whipped cream. When I got home, I looked up the recipe in the Magnolia Cookbook only to discover they use instant pudding. It really wasn’t much of a recipe at all–more like add some bananas to some instant pudding and call it a day. Let’s just say that’s about the time when banana pudding and I parted ways. But thanks to this simple recipe, we’re back together.
The recipe is from a great book that focuses just on Southern desserts. We’re talking lemon ice-box pie, Hummingbird cake, Coca Cola cake–nostalgic desserts culled from the editors of Southern Living Magazine. I cut the published recipe in half because, let’s face it, I don’t need 12-14 servings of anything laying around my apartment. But even so, I had some pudding leftover after I filled my serving dish, so I made a few individual glass jars–next time I think I’ll do them all in glass jars. I like how you can see the layers of the pudding through them. I also adapted the recipe to include less sugar and a bit more flour for a slightly thicker pudding. I encourage you to throw in the towel and try some for dinner very soon.
Adapted from: Classic Southern Desserts
Whisk milk and egg yolks in a bowl and pour into a heavy saucepan. Add sugar, flour, and salt and whisk together until smooth. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, 20 minutes or until thickened. If it’s not getting as thick as you’d like after 20 minutes, feel free to add another teaspoon of flour. Remove from heat; stir in the vanilla.
Arrange one-third of vanilla wafers in bottom of a small serving dish. Slice 1 banana and layer over wafers. Spoon one-third of custard over bananas. Repeat until custard is gone and you have a few solid layers.
Beat whipping cream at medium speed with an electric mixer until foamy; gradually add powdered sugar to mixture, beating until soft peaks form. Spread over custard. Serve immediately or cover and chill for eight hours.
Winter Soups and Stews
If your house is anything like ours, last week wasn't our most inspired in terms of cooking. We're all suffering from the post-election blues -- the sole upside being Oliver's decision to sleep-in until 7 am for the first time in many, many months; I think he's trying to tell us that pulling the covers over our heads and hibernating for awhile is ok. It's half-convincing. For much of the week, instead of cooking, there'd been takeout pizza and canned soup before, at week's end, I decided it was time to pour a glass of wine and get back into the kitchen. I was craving something hearty and comforting that we could eat for a few days. Something that wouldn't remind me too much of Thanksgiving because, frankly, I can't quite gather the steam to start planning for that yet. It was time for a big bowl of chili.
Last weekend it was so windy – apocalyptically stormy, you could say – that our tent at the farmers market was uprooted by gusts of wind that were not messing around. I wasn't there, but apparently despite being heavily weighted down and with four customers holding onto each corner, it quite literally blew down the block. Sam, from across town, was reporting trees falling on every block and traffic lights out across the city. The next morning on a walk with Oliver around Green Lake, we were met with that same biting wind and ended up retreating for a hot chocolate instead. 'Tis the season in Seattle: we all get a little giddy and ahead of ourselves when we spot the cherry blossoms and daffodils, and I always trick myself into thinking that with the start of daylight savings time, summer must be right around the corner. In truth, before we had Oliver, we'd often travel somewhere sunny for a little mood boost around this time of year. When I moved from California, many friends – other (empathetic) 'expats' now living in the Pacific Northwest – recommended this: if you know what's good for you, they'd all say, go find the sun in February or March, and we would follow that advice faaaaaithfully. But with a baby, this just isn't where our priorities are this year, and I've found myself relying on other antics like buying out of season strawberries, drinking white wine with dinner, buying a new pair of sandals that likely will not see the light of day for the next two months, and making big, colorful pots of feel good, springy soup. Let's not kid ourselves: Cherry blossoms or not, Seattle's no Palm Springs when it gets down to bathing in the sunlight. But if you step outside onto your little porch, smell the honeysuckle blooming, take notice of the longer, lighter days and think about how you simply can't wait to see your baby crawling around on the sand when it's warm enough to stroll down to the beach, it starts looking better in its own light.
We returned home from San Francisco on New Years Eve just in time for dinner, and craving greens -- or anything other than baked goods and pizza (ohhhh San Francisco, how I love your bakeries. And citrus. And winter sunshine). Instead of driving straight home, we stopped at our co-op where I ran in for some arugula, an avocado, a bottle of Prosecco, and for the checkout guys to not-so-subtly mock the outlook of our New Years Eve: rousing party, eh? They looked to be in their mid-twenties and I figured I probably looked ancient to them, sad even. But really, there wasn't much sad (or rousing, to be fair) about our evening: putting Oliver to bed, opening up holiday cards and hanging them in the kitchen, and toasting the New Year with arugula, half a quesadilla and sparkling wine. It wasn't lavish. But it's what we both needed. (Or at least what we had to work with.) Since then, I've been more inspired to cook lots of "real" food versus all of the treats and appetizers and snacks the holidays always bring on. I made Julia Turshen's curried red lentils for the millionth time, a wintry whole grain salad with tuna and fennel, roasted potatoes, and this simple green minestrone that I've taken for lunch this week. Determined to fit as many seasonal vegetables into a bowl as humanly possible, I spooned a colorful pesto on top, as much for the reminder of warmer days to come as for the accent in the soup (and for the enjoyment later of slathering the leftover pesto on crusty bread).
One of the things I wanted to accomplish before really returning to work in earnest was to print some of our honeymoon photos and get them into an album. This project has taken far longer than expected as I find myself daydreaming about the craggy streets of Naples and meeting up with our friends Mataio and Jessica for a late night slice of pizza which we ate sitting on the sidewalk before embarking on an aimless but wonderful stroll of the city. There are photos of our balcony by the sea, most with tanned limbs, sandy sandals and a Campari and soda gracing the periphery of the frame. There was the little grocery store up the hill from our apartment on the Amalfi Coast that had the sweetest, tiniest strawberries and the best yogurt in little glass jars. Tomatoes drying in the sun, Aperol spritzes and salty peanuts before dinner at the bar across from the church square where all the neighborhood kids played kickball. As I sit here typing this now, photos remain scattered on my desk and it's likely they may not make it into the proper slots in the album anytime soon. Of course, they have me dreaming of sunshine and long days with little agenda, but they also have me thinking about the simplicity of our meals in Italy and how truly easy it was to eat well. Coincidentally, a few days ago Rachel Roddy's lusty new cookbook (can we call it lusty?!), My Kitchen in Rome, arrived at our doorstep. Clearly it was time to set the photos aside and get into the kitchen.
And suddenly, it's fall. I find that realization always comes not so much with the dates on the calendar as it does the leaves on the ground, the first crank of the heat in the morning, the dusky light on the way home from an evening run. Because we were gone on the train for nearly a week, I feel like fall happened here in Seattle during that very time. I left town eating tomatoes and corn and returned to find squashes and pumpkins in the market. It was that quick. And so, it only seemed fitting that I make this soup, one that has graced the fall table of each and every apartment (and now house) I've ever lived. In fact, I'm surprised that I hadn't yet made it for you here, and delighted to share it with you today.