It’s all I can do not to just drop everything and turn this into a gardening blog. Maybe a gardening blog with cookies, and cocktails? I jest. But in all seriousness, thank you all so much for your generous comments and advice about planting and gardening. I wish I had you in my back pocket at all times, but you’ve given me a lot to work with and much inspiration. In fact, today’s recipe is made with fresh herbs from the backyard! It’s been unusually warm in Seattle this week, so everything’s growing like crazy and quite thirsty. I learned a valuable lesson: if you take off on the ferry to Vashon Island on a very sunny day to visit a most lovely couple in their new home, eat the best quinoa you may have ever tasted, and forget to water your plants, you will come home to sad basil. This is, apparently, a fact. I’m learning slowly. Also a fact: playing hookie on an island is sometimes just what the doctor ordered. I’ve been thinking a lot about creativity lately and how to make more space for it in the constant to-do lists of my (I assume our) daily lives. I often feel guilty if I take moments to focus on a non-work related project, but I read something recently that led me to believe taking time out of our day to chop some herbs, knead some dough, and wait for it to rise might just be what we all need more of.
Before we get to foccacia and creativity, some of you suggested that I share a few photos every now and then chronicling how things are going in the garden, and I love that idea. I think we should start small. With herbs: thyme, basil, rosemary, mint and parsley. The cilantro is hiding under the table. It may not make it.
Sam and I decided to take the day off of work on Friday because sometimes you need to do that. It was my first time on Vashon and, as is the case with many people, I became quite smitten with the sweet little downtown, the big grassy plots of land, and the small winding roads. And the best part: I forced myself not to feel guilty about taking a Friday off to do not much of anything on my to-do list. I’ve been reading Imagine by Jonah Lehrer and it has me thinking about the way in which a mental break and space is so important in driving creativity and inspiration. When we work, work, work and stare at the computer waiting for inspiration to strike — it likely won’t. Or it’ll make a most slow and painfully circuitous arrival.
If you’re unfamiliar with Imagine, it’s an exploration of the science of creativity and how it’s not necessarily a gift that some have, but something we can all work at and learn. There’s that word “work” again. But hold on: many of Lehrer’s suggestions on how to work at this involve taking time to go on a long walk, learning how to daydream productively, and traveling (if your life allows it) — even just for a few hours to a nearby town.
One of my favorite lines from the book is when Lehrer says, “There is something scary about letting ourselves go. It means that we will screw up, that we will relinquish the possibility of perfection. It means that we will say things we didn’t mean to say and express feelings we can’t explain. It means that we will be onstage and not have complete control, that we won’t know what we’re going to play until we begin, until the bow is drawn across the strings. While this spontaneous method might be frightening, it’s also an extremely valuable source of creativity…the lesson about letting go is that we contain our own creativity. We are so worried about playing the wrong note or saying the wrong thing that we end up with nothing at all.” As an adamant planner and list-follower, I can attest that this is true. I think I can be my worst enemy when it comes to creativity, containing it at many junctures and corners.
There’s a certain amount of fear in moving away from the lists and the scripts. That’s where the routine and comfort lives, but also, according to Lehrer, where creativity most decidedly doesn’t live. I’m sure you can relate to laying on the beach somewhere with little agenda or walking aimlessly around your neighborhood and having idea after idea bounce around unhindered. Whether it’s new business ideas or writing topics or inspiration for how to decorate a room in your house: that’s the fruit of this letting go. And that moment when you’re laying on the beach or taking that walk, you’re literally making space for those thoughts to wander in. Imagine is all about actively taking a role in the birth of more creativity. I like this idea.
So yesterday while there were many, many things that needed tending to I woke up strangely early and decided that it was time to make this pretty spring foccacia I’d been thinking about. No computer, no emails, a sleeping Sam, a coffee maker gurgling away, and dough rising. During this time, did I come up with an idea for a new invention? Nope. But I did make some spaciousness in the morning that made the rest of the day much easier. A self-enforced time out. Allow yourself to try it this week. Rising dough optional.
A few things about the recipe: it is from Canal House vol. 3 which boasts many pretty spring recipes (remember the watercress soup from earlier this year?). I altered the recipe a little, using a bit of whole wheat flour instead of all bread flour and adding more herbs. The result is a most satisfying bite of chewy crust, thinly sliced tart lemon, a smattering of fresh herbs, a healthy splash of olive oil, and an even healthier sprinkling of coarse salt. While I planned on having it for lunch with a green salad, we left it out on the kitchen table and both cut off little pieces throughout the day whenever we walked by.
Because this recipe essentially makes 4 rounds, I froze two sections of the dough to use later. If you go this route, you’ll obviously want to cut the topping quantities in half (only 1 lemon etc.) For the herbs, use whatever you like and have fresh on hand; I loved the combination of fresh thyme and rosemary although I think dill and chives could be really nice, too. And if you have a mandolin to slice the lemons, this is the best way to get them super thin.
Adapted from Canal House, vol. 3
For the dough, dissolve the yeast in 1/2 cup warm water in a medium bowl. Stir in 1 1/4 cups water and 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Pulse the flour and salt together in the bowl of a food processor. Add the yeast mixture and process until a rough ball forms, about 1 minute. Briefly knead dough on a floured surface until smooth. Shape dough into a ball.
Put 2 tablespoons of the oil into a large bowl. Roll dough around in the bowl until coated with oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the dough rise in a warm spot until it has doubled in size, about two hours.
Pour a thin film of oil into each of four 8-inch round cake pans. Quarter the dough and put one piece in each pan (if you’re making two rounds as we did, only oil two pans and wrap two quarters in plastic wrap and freeze). Using your fingertips, spread dough out in each pan. The dough is elastic and will resist stretching. Let it rest for 5 minutes or so after you’ve stretched it as far as it will go. Eventually it will cooperate and fill the pan.
Preheat the oven to 450 F. Cover the pans with damp dishcloths and let the dough rest until it has swollen in the pans a little, 30-60 minutes. Uncover the pans, sprinkle the dough the your herbs.
Using your fingertips, poke dimples into the dough in each pan, then drizzle with oil so it pools into the little crevices. Arrange the thinnest rounds of lemon on top, drizzle with more oil, and sprinkle generously with sea salt.
Bake for 20-28 minutes. Drizzle with more oil when you pull it from the oven.
*You could also make in your stand mixer if you don’t have a food processor. I did the dough in my food processor and was a little worried because it was brimming almost to the top with flour but it turned out just fine. I don’t see any reason why could couldn’t just mix it up by hand the old-fashioned way, too. I’ll likely try this next time.
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.