I picked up the most recent issue of Time Magazine to find Jonathan Franzen on the cover. I’m a big fan of Franzen and think what he does in depicting ordinary folks living ordinary lives is nothing short of genius. If you’re looking for intricate plots and ax murderers, you won’t find them with Franzen. But you will find average couples sitting around the breakfast table all out of milk, listening to lawnmowers in the distance and wondering why it is they got married in the first place. The good stuff. The real stuff. So while the article made me interested to read his new book Freedom, I was most struck by the way in which Franzen works–his process, his routine, his desk.
Franzen’s adamant about eliminating any and all distractions, and works in a rented office with absolutely no access to the internet, zero wall decorations and a completely empty desk. Basically, a shell of a room with an old Dell laptop. This got me thinking about the way I like to work and the ways I’m most productive. Since I do a lot of writing at home, I could relate to much of what Franzen said about eliminating distraction–although I’m not nearly as vigilant (and therefore, probably much less productive) about it as he is. That’s my desk below. I hoard dessert books and like to keep little plates of lemons around from my mom’s tree. And that’s my new Target binder. Yeah, I’m getting organized. Oh, and that’s my favorite coffee mug of all time.
I think when you live alone, your sense of how you best work naturally regardless of anyone else’s schedule, baskets of laundry cluttering up your space, or favorite television shows blaring in the near distance becomes quite amplified. I work more at night now then I used to. I gear up my Pandora and have fresh flowers around my desk. And numerous glasses of water. I won’t answer the phone and I’ll turn off twitter.
The other room, besides my office, where I get lots of work done and find a great sense of peace is in the kitchen. So I got to thinking about what kind of space I like to keep there and how I best function. I’m not one of those easy-going kitchen people. I don’t really like to breezily chat with girlfriends while I whip up something quick for dinner. I know people who do this. I’m so not in that club although I aspire to be. I concentrate, reread recipes numerous times, lay things out in minorly-obsessive ways, clean as I go, pace a little. I will never be one of those moms that includes their kids in major cooking projects. The thought of help in the kitchen–especially help from lots of tiny hands–makes me immediately begin to sweat.
Sometimes the nice thing about a recipe is that it allows us tightly-wound kitchen folks to loosen our apron strings just a little and ease into a new way of doing things. This is the case with this fabulous cookie recipe I found on my friend Kelsey’s blog, The Naptime Chef. Kelsey focuses on recipes that busy moms can accomplish during the time in which their kids are taking a mid-day nap. So these are darn simple cookies. But what I really love about them is their crackly tops, rich chocolaty flavor, and bits of chocolate and pecans scattered throughout. They’re also not at all too sweet–the espresso powder and unsweetened chocolate kind of temper that. I made a few minor tweaks to Kelsey’s recipe–mainly in the addition of pecans and just a little less flour. If you’ve got some cocoa powder lying around from the deluxe brownies, use it up here.
From uncluttered desks, to decorated cubicles, to telecommuting and skyping–whatever you do for work and however you find productivity and inspiration–I’m thinking a chocolate cookie always helps. Happy Monday.
Slightly adapted from The Naptime Chef
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Cream butter and sugars until light and fluffy in a stand mixer or with hand beaters. This should take a good five minutes–you really want to aerate the cookies and fully work in the sugar here. Then add eggs one at a time, mixing after each addition until just combined.
In a separate bowl, mix together the dry ingredients: flour, cocoa powder, salt, baking soda, and espresso powder. Stir with a whisk to make sure the dry ingredients are well mixed.
With the mixer on low, slowly add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients, scraping down the sides of the bowl to ensure smooth incorporation. Don’t over beat–just mix until all ingredients are combined. Using a wooden spoon or spatula, mix in chocolate chips and pecans.
Line a baking sheet with parchment. Using a 1 1/2″ ice-cream scoop or plain old teaspoon, scoop dough onto the sheet and lay out 2″ apart. Bake for 10 minutes. Cool on a wire rack before
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.