There are many times when I feel like we’re on the same page here. Maybe we chat about the change of seasons, or really good chocolate, or a book I’m reading that you’ve also heard of. Maybe we talk about summer travel plans, or cherry blossom trees, or how to balance work and life in a relatively sane way. But I have a hunch that we’re not on the same page with what I want to talk about here today. I’m willing to guess that, for most of you, you’re far beyond me on this one. It’s true: unbeknownst to me, I’ve been left terribly behind. This thing I speak of? Gardening. Or the backyard in general. Really, let’s be honest: I’m talking about plain and simple yard work.
For most of my adult life, I’ve lived in city apartments. Whether it was in downtown Boston, little-bit more suburban Brookline, San Francisco, or Denver, I haven’t had much space to stretch out my gardening limbs and give it a go. Here in Seattle, we have a pretty sizeable backyard and outside of all the major grocery stores and nurseries, there are edible plant sales, gardening tools and wheelbarrows on display. Clearly, it’s time to stock up! Well, as I soon discovered, this is easier said than done. I decided to check out the nursery on a random weekday last week so I wouldn’t be fighting the super efficient, clog-wearing, slightly intimidating weekend gardening crowd. I got a cup of coffee on the way, the sun was out — I was feeling good. This feeling lasted all of 9.2 seconds until I stepped into the nursery and realized I had no idea what to buy. No clue. I started taking photos of tools and sending them to my mom: Is this what people use to weed things?
Instead of texting back, she called immediately. Were you not paying attention all those years I was outside in the yard? Apparently not. It became clear to us both pretty quickly that it wasn’t so much that I didn’t know anything about gardening, I didn’t know much about the yard. Period. Soil baffled me. Compost confused me. I ended up buying a hoe, a lopper (my new favorite word), a watering can, some potting soil, a trowel (basically a hand shovel, for all you city non-gardening folks), some grass seed, and a big shovel. I was set. I came home and got to work, putting on my old Converse and pouring a big glass of fizzy water to take out to the yard with me. I was going to whip it into shape, surely, in a matter of hours with all of these great tools. Well it turns out it takes much longer than a few hours. It turns out it can be kind of lonely, discouraging work (I’m going to try music next time. And much more fizzy water. Maybe a cookie or two as well). When I put a few hours into something, whether it be writing, baking, running–whatever, it’s nice to see something in return. I don’t feel like this whole new world I’ve entered into is keeping up its end of the bargain. The Yard Waste bin fills up too fast, I notice some weeds missing for sure, but our yard looks pretty much the same.
But, hey. Our lawn is mowed, I’ve planted herbs and they’re sitting on top of this great outdoor table I found at Goodwill for $9.25. That’s the start right there, yes? We have big plans to build some raised beds in the next two weeks and I really want to grow kale and carrots (do carrots grow here? Anyone? Anyone?). I’ve reserved a few gardening books at the library and am trying not to get prematurely discouraged by talks of zones, perennial-ness, and rain cycles. It’s a whole new world, for sure. I’m trying my very hardest to put my conquer-it-in-one-day, first child mentality aside here and think of this more like a marathon than a sprint. This one’s going to take awhile. Our yard might not look like our neighbor’s yard for quite some time. If you’re one of the many friends planning a visit this summer, you may want to bring your hiking boots to navigate your way around back there. Or at the very least, maybe bring your trowel and I’ll put you to work.
I wish I could tell you that I used our own herbs for this recipe, but I didn’t. Although I’m most confident in a few weeks time, I’ll be able to. This recipe I’m sharing with you today is a fantastic lunch recipe. I popped it in the oven around noon the other day, made Heidi’s Tuscan Kale Salad, heated up some bread and we had a pretty fine lunch for a Wednesday. This is the first recipe I’ve made from An Everlasting Meal and I’m eager to try a few more (the Thai-fried rice is up next, I’m thinking). I’ve mentioned Tamar Adler’s book here before; her recipes are more narrative than prescriptive and rely on a more intuitive, stress-less approach to cooking. She encourages using up what you have laying around the kitchen and teaching yourself around the kitchen by doing and relying on what you already know. Trusting yourself more. So this recipe is appropriate for today as it’s very much in the spirit of the backyard project: we’re working with what we’ve got, and learning as we go. Much easier when fueled with hot, herbed cheese, I guarantee you.
For this recipe, I added more herbs than Tamar Adler calls for and decided to throw in a handful of capers at the very end. Serve with big hunks of bread and salad. Or use as a dip with your favorite crackers or chip
Adapted from: An Everlasting Meal
Heat the oven to 425 F.
Mix all the ingredients together in a medium bowl. Add salt until it tastes a little less seasoned than you’d like: A lot of water will evaporate when this bakes, so you don’t want to over season it ahead of time. Spread the mixture into a 9-inch pie plate and bake it in the middle of the oven for 35-38 minutes. The top will develop a toasted brown skin and inflate slightly and then deflate when you take it out.
Serve warm with crusty bread and salad. It’s also great served cold or room temperature and will keep, if covered and refrigerated, for a good 2 days after it’s made.
Early Fall Baking
Last weekend we went apple picking up near Yakima, a good three hours east of Seattle. We drove over to Harmony Orchards with our friends Brandi and John and met up with many other groups and families to amble about the rows and rows of apples in the unusually warm sun. We missed the annual picking last year as we were on our honeymoon, but the previous year was the one in which we made the colossal mistake of picking over 70 pounds of apples. I've never made so much applesauce in my life. This year we practiced restraint in bringing home a cool 38 pounds and after getting them all situated in the basement, I started to leaf through a few cookbooks looking for a great apple recipe -- something, preferably, that used quite a few apples, wasn't too sweet and could double as breakfast or dessert (really, the best kind of recipe). And that's exactly what we have in these Custardy Apple Squares.
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 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.
I rarely make muffins at home and never order one when I'm out and about as I find they're often far too sweet and never truly that satisfying. I realize, too, in looking back at my cookbook that there's only one muffin recipe throughout. Case in point: I'm tentative on muffins. But not these. We've been pretty thrilled to have this healthier version of Morning Glory muffins on the counter this week; they have little bits of apple, raisins, walnuts, and grated carrot and are cloaked in a buttery oat crumble topping -- quite the opposite of your boring coffeeshop fare. I thought long and hard about doing a Valentine's post, some festive cookie or confection that would be share-worthy this weekend, but the more we talked about what our weekend would really look like, it involved something special for breakfast instead. I don't remember the last time a Valentine's Day fell on a Saturday, so we have big plans to have breakfast in bed and if your plans are even remotely similar, these muffins would be a fine inclusion.
I generally work on weekends. It's something I've come to terms with only because I know it won't last forever. I write. I bake. But those two things don't always pay the bills, so I work retail on the weekends and dream of the day when I'll have a Sunday like this one: