I had some big plans for this past weekend. It was in the 70’s in Seattle and everyone was out on the lake, gardening, running, biking, and lounging on patios. Our house, on the other hand, came down with the plague. Sam’s been struggling with his allergies all week and I caught a rogue flu, so instead of beach picnics and planting herbs, I finally finished An Everlasting Meal, drank honeyed licorice tea, and took many naps. We did, also, drag ourselves to the U-District farmers market and picked up some rhubarb, sorrel, broccolini, and farm eggs. The fridge had become quite bare and it felt really good to have some color around.
Now I’m not sure if we’ve chatted about this before, but I’m not the best sick person. I don’t do well just laying around, always feeling like I should at least be reading something engaging or watching an interesting movie or taking care of a writing project or two. So after waking up far too early on Sunday, my version of laying low was organizing our baking cupboard, getting our whole grain flours in order, putting on a pot of tea, and getting to work slicing rhubarb. While my to-do list was left alone, I did bake these Rhubarb Custard Crisp Bars, and I’ve been thankful to have them around. Little slices go well with tea. I’ve learned today they’re also quite nice for breakfast. The tart rhubarb is balanced with just enough sugar (they’re not at all too sweet), the spelt crust brings out a buttery toastiness, and the nutty oat topping will remind you of every good fruit crisp you’ve eaten. They’ll remind you of late spring and gentle sunshine and of not being cooped up inside.
If you’ve never worked with spelt flour before, it’s pretty wonderful. It’s a great entry way into whole-grain baking, so if you often experiment with whole wheat flour and are looking for something new, today’s your day. Kim Boyce, author of my very favorite baking book, Good to the Grain, describes spelt flour as having a “slightly tart aroma” yet being “distinctly sweet.” It substitutes 1:1 for all-purpose flour or whole-wheat flour for most recipes, so you can feel free to experiment away. For these bars, I used a recipe I’ve been looking forward to using from Chicken and Egg but made some significant changes, using whole-grain flour, taking down the sugar by half, and adding my crumble topping I like to use on pies and crisps. The result is a sturdier bite of rhubarb crisp, one you can actually hold in your hand and bring to the couch with you, if need be. Although they’d be just as happy, I think, outdoors on a picnic blanket.
By all means, use all-purpose or whole-wheat flour here if that’s what you prefer or have on hand. And for the crumble topping, feel free to use pecans (or any other nut) instead of walnuts. The crust is simple to make, but if you’re more comfortable working with a food processor to blend in the butter and make your crust, that will work just fine, too. Next time I bake these, I’d love to experiment by layering in some fresh sliced strawberries and sprinkling candied ginger on top.
For Crisp Topping:
For the Crust: Preheat the oven to 350 F. Butter a 11 x 7 inch glass baking pan.
Stir together the spelt flour, brown sugar and salt in a small bowl until combined. Work the butter into the flour mixture with a pastry blender or your fingertips until the butter is evenly distributed and the size of small pebbles. The mixture should be dry and crumbly.
Press the mixture firmly into the bottom of the pan to form the crust. Bake for 20 minutes or until the crust is turning a nice golden brown.
For the Filling: While the crust bakes, whisk the sugar, flour, baking powder and salt together in a medium bowl.
In a separate medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, egg yolk, vanilla, and ground ginger until smooth. Add the dry mixture into the egg mixture and whisk to combine. Add the rhubarb and stir until it’s completely coated.
For the Topping: In a medium bowl, combine the spelt flour, oats, brown sugar, salt, ground ginger, and chopped walnuts. Stir to combine together. Add the melted butter and mix it into the dry ingredients (I use my hands at this point). The crisp topping should be quite clumpy. If it seems to wet or smooth, feel free to add a bit more flour or oats, 1 tablespoon at a time.
Pour the rhubarb filling over the prepared crust. Sprinkle the crisp topping over the top. Bake for 30-35 minutes or until the top if golden brown. Cool for 30 minutes before slicing. Slice and serve slightly warm. They are best on the day they’re made, but if you have leftovers, they keep beautifully covered and refrigerated for up to 2 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.