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.
It turns out that returning from a sunny honeymoon to a rather rainy, dark stretch of Seattle fall hasn't been the easiest transition. Sam and I have been struggling a little to find our groove with work projects and even simple routines like cooking meals for one another and getting out of the easy daily ruts that can happen to us all. When we were traveling, we made some new vows to each other -- ways we can keep the fall and winter from feeling a bit gloomy, as tends to happen at a certain point living in the Pacific Northwest (for me, at least): from weekly wine tastings at our neighborhood wine shop to going on more lake walks. And I suppose that's one of the most energizing and invigorating parts about travel, isn't it? The opposite of the daily rut: the constant newness and discovery around every corner. One of my favorite small moments in Italy took place at a cafe in Naples when I accidentally ordered the wrong pastry and, instead, was brought this funny looking cousin of a croissant. We had a wonderfully sunny little table with strong cappuccino, and, disappointed by my lack of ordering prowess, I tried the ugly pastry only to discover my new favorite treat of all time (and the only one I can't pronounce): the sfogliatelle. I couldn't stop talking about this pastry, its thick flaky layers wrapped around a light, citrus-flecked sweet ricotta filling. It was like nothing I'd ever tried -- the perfect marriage of interesting textures and flavors. I became a woman obsessed. I began to see them displayed on every street corner; I researched their origin back at the hotel room, and started to look up recipes for how to recreate them at home. And the reason for the fascination was obviously that they were delicious. But even more: I'm so immersed in the food writing world that I rarely get a chance to discover a dish or a restaurant on my own without hearing tell of it first. And while a long way away from that Italian cafe, I had a similar feeling this week as I scanned the pages of Alice Medrich's new book, Flavor Flours, and baked up a loaf of her beautiful fall pumpkin loaf: Discovery, newness, delight!
I always force myself to wait until after Halloween to start thinking much about holiday pies or, really, future holidays in general. But this year I cheated a bit, tempted heavily by the lure of a warmly-spiced sweet potato pie that I used to make back when I baked pies for a living in the Bay Area (way back when). We seem to always have sweet potatoes around as they're one of Oliver's favorite foods, and when I roast them for his lunch I've been wishing I could turn them into a silky pie instead. So the other day I reserved part of the sweet potatoes for me. For a pie that I've made hundreds of times in the past, this time reimagined with fragrant brown butter, sweetened solely with maple syrup, and baked into a flaky kamut crust. We haven't started talking about the Thanksgiving menu yet this year, but I know one thing for sure: this sweet potato pie will make an appearance.
This time last week I was up in the Skagit River Valley sitting in the early fall sun eating wood-fired bagels and chatting with farmers, millers and bakers at the Kneading Conference West. I made homemade soba noodles, learned the ins and outs of sourdough starters, and sat in on a session where we tasted crackers baked with single varietal wheats. It was like wine tasting, but with wheat and the whole time I kept pinching myself, thinking: THESE ARE MY PEOPLE! I don't get the opportunity to be a student much these days -- usually on the other side of things teaching cooking classes or educating people at the farmers markets about whole grains and natural sugars. So to just sit and listen with a fresh (red!) notebook and a new pen was surprisingly refreshing. I miss it already. Thankfully, this cookie recipe has come back as a memorable souvenir, and one that is sure to be in high rotation in our house in the coming months.
Strolling New York City streets during the height of fall when all the leaves are changing and golden light glints off the brownstone windows. This is what I envisioned when I bought tickets to attend my cousin's September wedding earlier this month: Sam and I would extend the trip for a good day or two so we could experience a little bit of fall in the city. We'd finally eat at Prune and have scones and coffee at Buvette, as we always do. Sam wanted to take me to Russ and Daughters, and we'd try to sneak in a new bakery or ice cream shop for good measure. Well, as some of you likely know, my thinking on the weather was premature. New York City fall had yet to descend and, instead, we ambled around the city in a mix of humidity and rain. When we returned home I found myself excited about the crisp evening air, and the fact that the tree across the street had turned a rusty shade of amber. It was time to do a little baking.
I am writing this on Saturday afternoon on a day when we had big plans to conquer pre-baby chore lists, but Sam's not feeling great and my energy's a little low so it hasn't been quite what we'd envisioned. My goals for the morning were to repot a house plant and make some soup and I've done neither. I will say that the sweet potato and fennel are still sitting on the counter eagerly awaiting their Big Moment -- it just hasn't come about quite yet. Sam and I were both going to attempt to install the carseat, but it started to look really daunting so we abandoned ship; it's now sitting proudly in the basement, also eagerly awaiting its Big Moment. So it's been one of those weekends -- the kind you look back on and wonder what it is you actually accomplished. At the very least, I get the chance to tell you about this hearty cranberry cornbread. I know maybe it feels premature in the season for cranberry recipes, but hang with me here: slathered with a little soft butter and runny honey, there's nothing I'd rather eat right now on the cool, crisp Seattle mornings we've been having lately.