I went to hear Gabrielle Hamilton speak in downtown San Francisco Friday night. Now there’s a lot one can say about her book Blood, Bones and Butter — about what’s in the book and about what’s so clearly not in the book. About her difficult personal life, family dynamics, and road to becoming a chef. But what I’m always intrigued with when it comes to Hamilton are her thoughts on work and accepting, in a fierce and even deliberate manner, what it is you want to do. Regardless of what critics may have said, this is why I kind of dig her.
In a recent interview with IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals), Hamilton spoke about being both a cook and a writer:
I love them both. I particularly rely on how they act as antidotes and complements to each other. It’s nice to dedicate yourself to writing and the larger thoughts that writing requires after you’ve spent 12 solid hours trying to sort out how many oysters you need for a party and where am I going to get the lavender for that event…you know, cooking preoccupies you with many little mundane things. The writing is an antidote to that. Equally, when you’re searching out one of those elusive things in writing…your sentences are dead on the page, you can’t express than thought…it can be very nice to just get on the line, grill the fish and send it out. It’s so practical and accomplishable and clean and simple.
I thought about this paragraph for a while. It’s true that baking pies each week doesn’t require a whole lot of thought. In fact, in many ways it’s routine and even rote. Cut butter into flour, prep fruits and nuts, roll out the dough, crimp the edges. Repeat. But then you see sheet trays of golden brown and bubbling pies come out of the oven–a completed task–and you go home. Maybe you go on a run, make some dinner, do something other than bake a pie because you’re done baking pies for the night. Kitchen work has that ‘pump it out and get it done’ thing going on. Writing, on the other hand, is more thoughtful, stimulating, and intellectually challenging. It feeds the mind in a way that baking does not. But I’ll tell you one thing: you rarely ‘pump it out and get it done’ with writing. Writing doesn’t take a day off. Writing moves quietly into your apartment, your shower, your closet, your garage. Even your car. Writing sits right down at your kitchen table and doesn’t budge. Writing is relentless in this way. And that’s why I need it, too.
Later in the same interview, Hamilton speaks about stumbling upon her career path: This is just where I ended up. I have some sliver of talent, so it’s nice to do what you’re good at. And I do like the work of cooking very much. It’s engaging and honest work, and it feels healthy and good at the end of the day.
It’s true that not everyone chooses what they do for work. Some people fall into it, some people are shoved into it. Others simply need to pay their bills and found something close to home. But I think regardless, it’s important to have something that you feel good at– however large or small. And something that engages your mind in different ways. Whether it’s a routine that you do over and over and find comfort in or an ever-dynamic task that challenges and ignites you. Or I think, ideally, some combination of the two.
And as far as combinations and pairs and perfect marriages go, crumbly scones and lightly spiced pumpkin butter are pretty high up there on my list. These scones are inspired by Marion Cunningham’s Oatmeal Raisin Scone recipe in The Breakfast Book although I’ve ultimately used less sugar and whole-grain flours here. Also, when Sam was last in town, he picked up a little container of dates at a Middle Eastern grocery (Persian, Sam says) in downtown Berkeley. I’ve been wanting to bake with them ever since, so these scones morphed into Oatmeal Date Scones with a little orange zest and nutmeg for warmth — the perfect vehicle for a dollop of homemade pumpkin butter.
If you’ve yet to use oat flour, it has a really nice, mild sweetness that works well with muffin and scone recipes. And I love working with King Arthur’s white whole-wheat flour. To use it for the entire recipe would result in a clunkier scone, but the percentage of whole-grain flours here is pretty close to perfect. The trick is to work quickly so as not to let the butter get to warm. Also, you may find the dough to be a little on the wet side; that’s o.k. Use flour liberally when you’re shaping and cutting them and you’ll be just fine. Since it’s just me in my apartment, I froze these scones and have been quickly heating them in the stove each morning. They freeze beautifully.
Preheat the oven to 375 F. In a medium-sized bowl, quickly whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Add the cubed butter and, using your hands or a pastry cutter, rub or cut the butter into the flour mixture until it resembles small, course peas. Do this quickly so the butter won’t warm too much. It’s o.k. to have a few larger chunks of butter. Add the oats, dates, orange zest and nutmeg and stir with a fork to combine. Add the buttermilk and stir until the dough gathers together in an uneven ball (I use my hands at this point).
Take out a large wooden board (or use a clean table surface) and sprinkle generously with flour. Dump out the dough onto the board and roll around in the flour to coat the exterior. Quickly gather the dough into a ball and pat/push it down so it’s circular in shape and about 1/2-inch thick. Cut into 6 or 8 wedges depending on how large you like your scones. Place the wedges on an ungreased baking sheet and bake for 20-25 minutes, or until lightly brown.
Adapted from: Turntable Kitchen
Combine all of the ingredients into a small saucepan and bring to a slow boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and stir the mixture often to ensure it doesn’t stick or burn. After about 20-25 minutes, the mixture will darken in color and thicken–it’s ready!
Now you can transfer it to nice glass jars and refrigerate for 10-12 days.
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.