A few days after Thanksgiving, Sam and I found ourselves at Elmwood Cafe reading books and drinking giant soy mochas out of ceramic bowls. I’d been flipping through Lucky Peach magazine and the article On Perfect Moments caught my attention. In it, Daniel Patterson talks about searching for perfect moments and how they pop up when you least expect or plan for them. Since he’s a chef, he frames the discussion in terms of cooking with fennel and how most cooks don’t think to use the green fennel buds that haven’t flowered yet. He says, “What appeals to me about these fennel buds is how they reflect this idea of paying attention, of recognizing perfect moments. Right now is the only moment that fennel plants will yield this particular flavor.”
And sometimes in the midst of holiday traffic, family dynamics, and dozens upon dozens of pies it can be difficult to slow down and pay attention. There are weeks of shopping lists, crowded grocery lines, and hostess gifts where everything can just happen to you. In a wonderful whirlwind kind of way, but still, the days seem to take off. With or without you. And that’s why I’m so thankful for this past Tuesday.
A day we kicked off with donuts. More donuts than I’m going to admit to you right now. We had bad diner coffee and learned quite a bit about lottery tickets and the very fine distinction between a buttermilk glazed donut and an old-fashioned glazed donut. Important stuff on a weekday morning, let me tell you.
With a small cup of coffee to-go, we drove out to West Marin in search of eventual oysters, perpetual rolling hills and occasional sunshine. After a wrong turn that took us to the town of Inverness, we slowly made our way back to Highway 1 and to the Tomales Bay Oyster Co. We bought over-priced charcoal and a dozen oysters. Our picnic table neighbors offered us some of their little-bit-warm Moscato wine and an older couple with a German Shorthair Pointer set up a very proper picnic (good mustard, nuts, crusty bread) a few tables away. We perfected the art of eying when an oyster is ready to come off the barbecue and met the resident cat who set up camp on top of my bag.
After we’d finished our last oyster we drove towards Point Reyes Station in search of a cup of coffee before heading home. It was that time of day where afternoon has decided to retire but evening isn’t quite ready to make an appearance. Still, quiet air was punctuated by the occasional bird landing on the water or a car passing by. We strolled into a kitschy souvenir shop and discovered harmonicas for sale. Sam bought two and we chatted with the women there about local businesses and politics. We left and walked towards The Station House Cafe while breaking in our harmonicas. I told Sam I’m a natural. After a few days of practicing, I still believe this to be true.
We sat at the bar, ordered Irish Coffees, read our books, chatted with the bartender, and people-watched. A once sunny horizon turned thick with fog and we ordered another drink to share. I’m never one to complain about strong drinks, but let’s just say after about an hour it become apparent that we weren’t driving home right away. So a burger happened along with french fries and a Manhattan. And popovers also happened. In a big way. In such a big way that we asked for another basket of them after our meal. I’m not sure if it was the salty ocean air or the slight tipsiness but the popovers tasted like one of the better things I’d had to eat in quite some time. They were eggy and light and we slathered butter on them and I laid my head on Sam’s shoulder.
And it was then that I realized I was sitting in the midst of a perfect moment. Here it was. Without plan or expectation. Without pomp or circumstance. An early winter evening with maybe one too many drinks, a handsome man, and a brand new harmonica.
Yesterday Sam left and on my way home from the airport I picked up a dozen eggs and set about making popovers. I thought I’d make a batch that could cross over into dessert territory or breakfast territory or afternoon tea territory. So these have a little vanilla in them and a dusting of cinnamon and sugar. They are quite wonderful. I ate them with just as much butter as I did at the bar that night and I recommend that’s how you eat them, too.
I hope you experienced a few perfect moments during the recent holiday. I really, truly do.
I made my popovers in a muffin tin although you can purchase a special popover pan if you’re so inclined; I’m just a fan of using what I have in my own cupboards. If you do use a popover pan, this recipe should yield 6 popovers whereas if you use a muffin tin, you’ll end up with 8. High heat is important to the success of these popovers so when you’re ready to fill your pan, remove it from the oven quickly and make sure not to open and close the oven door while they’re baking. These are really best the day they’re made. Preferably warm.
Adapted from: Cook’s Illustrated
For the Popovers:
For the Cinnamon Sugar Top:
Preheat the oven to 450 F. Blend the eggs and milk together in a blender until combined. Add flour, melted butter, salt, cinnamon and vanilla until smooth and bubbly, about one minute. Let the batter rest for 30 minutes.
While the batter is resting, it’s time to heat up the muffin pan. Pour 1/2 teaspoon of oil into each muffin cup, using only the outer 8 tins (leave the center ones empty — they won’t heat as evenly). Adjust oven rack to lowest position and make sure there’s not a rack directly above — remember your popovers are going to rise and you don’t want another oven rack to squish them. After the batter has rested 20 minutes, place pan in oven to heat the oil. You want the pan to have a good 10 minutes in the oven to heat.
After batter has rested, remove pan from the oven and, working quickly, divide batter amongst the 8 muffin cups. Return to oven and bake for 20 minutes (don’t open the oven door). Then lower heat to 350 F and continue to bake until popovers are golden brown, about 15 minutes more. After removing from the oven, gently flip them out onto a wire rack. I used a butter knife here–sometimes they take a little shimmying.
For the cinnamon sugar topping: mix the sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl. Thoroughly brush each popover all over with the 1/4 cup of melted butter, then dredge each puff generously in the sugar mixture. Enjoy warm.
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.