I’ve been thinking about nourishment lately. And satisfaction. See, I just finished Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones, and Butter (finally) and in it she talks about the experience of opening her thriving restaurant Prune, being wooed by a man that makes her homemade ravioli, her travels to Italy each summer to be with his family, having children, and her immense love for really good food. But it’s also about the facade of all of those things — about the deep loneliness she constantly faces. Feeling unhappy in her marriage, running ragged working around the clock at the restaurant, forgetting to eat or putting together odd, haphazard meals at odd, haphazard times of the day. Feeling dissatisfied. Feeling undernourished.
I have two friends who opened a restaurant here in Oakland and we chat sometimes about their dinners at the restaurant or whether or not they cook at home anymore. The answer is always the same: they no longer have time to cook at home, they’re sick of the food at the restaurant, and they’ve started to eat fast food in ways they would never have anticipated. And these are not fast-food women. But late at night when you’re feeling worn out after greeting hundreds of diners and hustling out plates of food while keeping your staff in check — there’s something about the perfect combination of salt and fat (along with speed and minimal effort) that just does the trick. It’s not food you ever imagined yourself enjoying, it’s not food you’d want to be seen eating, but it’s food all the same. Satisfying. For just a moment.
At the bakery, I experience something very similar. I never remember to bring a lunch and would never let myself take the time to sit down and enjoy it anyway. It’s always a lot of hustle and the more breaks I take, the longer it is until I finally get to head home. So I snack on roasted hazelnuts or spoonfuls of peanut butter. Or lemon curd on top of broken toast points that the catering company that cooks beside me has left behind. Satisfying. For just a moment. Why is it that we are all preparing food that we feel good about and spending time sourcing the best ingredients when we’re in the back of the kitchen inhaling chocolate chips just to keep our energy level up and racing home to drive-through french fries or ice cream for dinner? We’re not taking the same care of ourselves that we take preparing and serving food for our customers.
I had dinner with a lovely, jam-making friend last week. She’s younger than I am by a few years and smart as a whip. We sat talking about wholesale accounts, the food business in general, and our wacky schedules. She mentioned that she’s putting in 14-hour days from here on out until December 23rd. No days off. She just can’t: she has to produce all the jam for the year while the fruit is in season (and that, my friends, is right now). So she mentioned her staff and how the one thing that she does do to make it more manageable throughout the shift is to prepare a staff meal each day for them. Sometimes she does it, sometimes her boyfriend comes in to do it, but they always sit down and eat a meal together.
I got home and thought about our conversation. First, perspective: when I’m feeling run-down and a little sorry for myself about long hours and schlepping pies to the farmers market, I think about Dafna and her constant 14-hour days. Then I thought about how important it is that, while still working longer-than-long days, she’s making strides to take good care of herself and her staff in little ways. I know this seems small and I realize lots of restaurants have family meals together, but in the type of shared commercial kitchen environment that we both work in, this seems huge. When you pay by the hour and hustle to get out of the kitchen before another company comes in and spreads out their equipment, their vats of flour, their corn syrup across your station– that’s making a pretty big commitment to yourself and your staff. And it’s not so much about just the need to eat and feel momentarily satisfied. I think it’s really about nurturing: it’s the right thing to do, it feels good, it feels important, it’s at the root of what we all really believe in.
So there are little ways to hold onto satisfaction that last more than ten minutes. To strive towards feeling truly nurtured. I’m getting glimpses of this. Towards the beginning of Hamilton’s work, she talks about an outdoor party her parents threw: “Slowly the meadow filled with people and fireflies and laughter — just as my father had imagined–and the lambs on their spits were hoisted off the pit onto the shoulders of men, like in a funeral procession, and set down on the makeshift plywood-on-sawhorse tables to be carved. Then the sun started to set and we lit the paper bag luminaria, which burned soft glowing amber, punctuating the meadow and the night, and the lamb was crisp-skinned and sticky from slow roasting, and the root beer was frigid and it caught, like an emotion, in the back of my throat.” The perfect evening light, a crackling fire, people you love, food that makes you happy. That’s nourishment.
And so is deciding to commit Sundays as an actual day off for writing, seeing friends, sitting by the lake and reading, roasting tomatoes, maybe even cooking a real meal. Things that make me feel nurtured. I struggled with actually not doing any real work this past Sunday and forcing myself to take a full day to myself. We’ll see how long it lasts — but for now, I’m trying it out. It feels good. It feels important.
When you need to take a deep breath and a step back, these tomatoes are the place to turn. They take three to four hours in the oven so you literally can’t rush. They’ll make your kitchen smell like the height of summer and you’ll have trouble practicing moderation when they come out of the oven warm and dripping with good olive oil and softened sprigs of rosemary. Add them to pasta salads, omelets, frittatas or bowls of marinated farmers market vegetables. Or poach an egg at 10:37 on a Sunday morning with the paper on the kitchen table and your third cup of coffee. Lay the poached egg over the top of the roasted tomatoes, tear off a hunk of bread from the night before and sit on down for breakfast. Sit on down.
You can roast as many tomatoes as you like; this is just a guide for proportions of olive oil, garlic and rosemary to tomatoes. Plum tomatoes are fantastic roasted as are smaller cherry or grape tomatoes. Don’t cut your tomato slices too thin or they’ll cook too quickly and aren’t likely to hold their juice while roasting. I do a generous 1/2-inch slices.
Preheat the oven to 200 F and lay the tomatoes out on 2 baking sheets. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and garlic and rosemary. Drizzle with olive oil so each tomato has a thin layer.
Bake for 3-4 hours (depending on the size of your tomatoes — for very large heirloom slices, it’ll take longer). The tomatoes should look a little shriveled, even browned on the edges, but should still retain a little of their juiciness.
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.