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.
On Monday our little family of three is headed to the airport at 6 am to board our first with-baby cross-country trip. We'll be visiting Sam's family in New Jersey for a few days, then renting a car and driving over to meet up with my family at my mom's lake house in the Adirondacks. Sam's younger sister and her kids have yet to meet Oliver; my grandpa has yet to meet him, and Oliver has yet to take a dunk in a lake, see a firefly, or spend quality time with energetic dogs -- of which there will be three. A lot of firsts. This week my family has been madly texting, volunteering to make certain meals or sweets on assigned days while we're at the cabin and it got me thinking about really simple, effortless summer desserts -- in particular, ones that you can make while staying in a house with an unfamiliar kitchen and unfamiliar equipment and still do a pretty bang-up job. I think fruit crisp is just that thing.
Somehow, in what seems to have been a blink of an eye, we have a six month old baby. In some ways I can't remember a time we didn't have an Oliver, and in other ways it's all a blur broken up by a few holidays (a Thanksgiving thanks to grocery store takeout, and our very first Christmas in Seattle), a few family visits, a one-day road trip to Portland, a birthday dinner out, a birthday cake, weekend drives to nowhere in particular, swimming at the pool with Oliver, weekly get-togethers with our parent's group, doctor's visits, hundreds of walks around the neighborhood, hundreds of cups of coffee, dozens (or more?) of scoops of ice cream. Most of the worrying about keeping a baby alive has made way for other concerns, and Oliver's need for constant stimulation or soothing walks and car rides has been traded for stretches of time playing with a new toy or checking out his surroundings. In truth, it's thanks to that tiny bit of baby independence that this humble, summery cake came to be in the first place. So we've all got an Oliver to thank for that. Or, really, we have a Yossi Arefi to thank, as it's from her beautiful new cookbook that I've bookmarked heavily and am eager to continue exploring.
We walked to the library last week and I had a strange realization standing in line watching Sam check out his usual massive stack of books: Will I ever have the time to read stacks of books again? I used to be much more of a reader than I am today -- a fact I'm not at all proud of. But when evening rolls around and the more formal workday ends, I find emails and other odds and ends creep in. Walking home from the library, I began obsessing over free time for reading, asking Sam if we'd ever be those two old people who study bird manuals and can recognize birds on walks. I want to have the time to read bird manuals someday. For now though, we're young and we're working a lot. We did sneak away on that one-night camping trip I told you about, and cooked some interesting, haphazard meals which I hope to share with you soon. For now though, for summer: a strawberry dessert recipe.
Much like friends, types of Sunday mornings, or books -- there are many different kinds of desserts. Sometimes you may be in the mood for a light French cake piled high with summer fruit. Other days, a thick slice of fragrant pound cake will do. And then there are those days when you crave a rich chocolate mousse that you share after a night of good conversation and a little too much wine. But let's be honest. When it comes right down to it, the most basic and unassuming dessert of all is sometimes the only one that will do. A good and simple affair. Vanilla ice cream. So I want to talk about that today--about a dessert that withstands the test of time, that will always be there for you. A dessert that is far from trendy, that doesn't play favorites or trick you into thinking it's something that it's not. It's a good foundation. A solid beginning.
[ Pie. if you've been around here much in the last few months, you know that I make pie. A lot of pie. And I'm particularly excited to share this pie with you today because it helped me break out of a rut. A pie rut. A baking rut. A Marge inspiration rut.