There are moments when I’m truly happy we don’t have cable. This week, a time that finds us amidst the Facebook fiasco, is one of them. Even without TV, I feel like I can’t escape news of the IPO, stock prices, shareholder reactions, and future projections. But in last Sunday’s paper I read something that caught my attention. Mark Zuckerberg’s now wife, Priscilla Chan, made a request of him before moving in together: 100 minutes of alone time each week. And a vacation each year. My first reaction was one of mild shock: only 100 minutes?! I turned to Sam and told him about these agreements that are becoming more and more popular amongst couples — the drive to tell each other what you need from the relationship. The New York Times compared it to kind of an emotional prenup. It all sounded a bit formal and calculated to me. Wasn’t this depressing, I asked Sam? He glanced at me with a look that said that it really wasn’t at all. In fact, at that very moment, we were having our version of 100 minutes.
When you move to a new city and move in with someone for the first time, routines are important. And establishing those routines takes a little while. I’m lucky to have fallen in love with a man that finds routine and ritual very, very important. I know not everyone is like this. So on Sundays for the past month now, we go to one of our favorite bakeries in Seattle and bring the paper. Sometimes we’ll go in the late morning, sometimes we don’t make it until an hour before they close. Sometimes we’re rushing to get the farmer’s market in as well or tearing ourselves away from the computer screen or the garden at a moment that seems completely non-conducive to quiet newspaper reading and croissant eating. Last Sunday was hectic with errands and new projects but Sam insisted we set aside just 45 minutes. It’s our thing.
We order coffees and a chocolate croissant to share (and often a few other sweets). One particular Sunday I may really dive into a meaty article while another morning will find me perusing the Style Section or reading Modern Love and people watching. There’s really no expectation or hope for the morning other than just showing up. Read a few paragraphs or a dozen pages — it doesn’t matter, but be there for that time with each other. It’s become how we do Sunday mornings.
The rest of the week? I’m guessing it probably looks a lot like your mornings. Kind of a harried dash to make coffee and get to work. I’m trying to get better about eating breakfast right away, but it’s usually a later mid-morning endeavor that consists lately of homemade yogurt, farmers market fruit, and toasted amaranth.
If you’re not familiar with amaranth, it’s much like quinoa, a seed that folks generally lump into the category of “whole grains.” It’s gluten-free and especially high in protein and calcium — if you stroll into any grocery store with a decent bulk section you’ll likely see it. As for how to use it, there are a few ways : first, soak it and cook it much like quinoa or millet to make a pilaf to serve with veggies and salads. It also makes a wonderful porridge when cooked with coconut milk. But my favorite way to cook amaranth is by toasting it in a hot skillet on the stovetop and sprinkling it over my yogurt or granola in the morning. The teeny tiny grains puff up much like mini popcorn. Try it. Then toss toasted amaranth on virtually anything: cereals, salads, soups, in smoothies. Maybe it’ll become your new thing — the way you do mornings. On days other than Sunday, I’m right there with you.
As for homemade yogurt, once you make it once, you’ll likely never buy it at the store again. It’s so simple, so much cheaper, and cuts down on all of those plastic containers. I recently bought a yogurt maker and am in love with it, but you can absolutely make yogurt without it, too. I’ll include instructions for both here. Just note that the yogurt will take anywhere from 9-14 hours so you don’t want to start yogurt on a day you actually want to enjoy it. Start it in the evening on a slow weekend and it’ll be all set mid-day on the next day. Sure, you have to think through the timing but that’s about the end of the thought involved.
O.k., I lied. You need to quickly consider your starter. Essentially yogurt is simply milk with added starter that’s kept in a warm place to culture. You can buy a powdered starter like this one online or at a well-stocked grocery store. Or just use store-bought yogurt as your starter. Both work just fine. Just make sure the yogurt you’re purchasing states that it has “live and active cultures” or lists them in the ingredient list. Now about that warm place? I’ve talked with many people who have had luck wrapping their jar of yogurt in a towel and placing it in a warm spot in the house. Our house is old and drafty, so I haven’t had luck with that; instead, I put mine in a little camping cooler alongside a couple jars of hot water. This creates a warm little nest that makes for happy, firm yogurt. The trick is to use as small of a cooler as possible — the larger the cooler, the harder it is to maintain a nice warm temperature.
For this recipe, feel free to use low-fat or fat-free milk if you’d prefer. I think whole milk yogurt just tastes better, so I call for it here. Soy milk generally doesn’t have active cultures, so it isn’t a good candidate. If you’re smart, you may decide to do a double batch of these roasted strawberries and use them later spooned over vanilla ice cream or ladled on top of a simple butter cake. Please note, I didn’t note prep times or cook time in this recipe as it will vary so much depending on how you decide to process your yogurt.
For the yogurt:
Read the back of your particular starter packet for quantity suggestions specific to that brand
For the roasted strawberries & amaranth:
1. Pour the milk into a heavy-bottomed medium saucepan and over low heat, bring the temperature up to 185 F. Don’t stir during this time.
2. Remove from heat and allow the temperature to drop to 115F. If you want to speed this process up, slightly submerge the saucepan in a sink filled with a few inches of cold water. If your soon-to-be yogurt develops a skin on top, skim it off with a spoon and discard.
3. Once the temperature reaches 115 F, add your starter (powdered starter or store-bought yogurt) and whisk quickly to combine.
4. Process your yogurt:
Yogurt Maker Method: Divvy the milk mixture into the small glass cups of your yogurt maker and follow the manufacturer’s instructions on processing. You can expect a general processing time of 7-9 hours here.After processing, refrigerate for 2 hours before enjoying.
The “Old Fashioned” Method: Gather 2-4 large glass mason jars (depending on the size of your cooler) with lids and fill two of them with very hot water. Screw on caps and place in cooler. These will help maintain a warm temperature in the cooler. In the remaining jar, pour in the milk mixture and screw on lid. Wrap the jar snugly in a towel, place in the small cooler, and close the lid. Taking care not to jostle the cooler, set in the warmest spot in the house. Check progress in 10 hours. On occasion, depending on temperature and starter, my yogurt has taken up to 14 hours using this method. Once firm, refrigerate for 2 hours before enjoying. Do note that the yogurt will firm up a little further in the refrigerator, so if it’s looser than you like it, don’t worry (and, see “Note on Yogurt Thickness” below).
Roast Strawberries & Toast Amaranth:
1. Line a baking sheet with parchment & set aside. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
2. Cut strawberries in half lengthwise. If they’re very large berries, you can quarter them instead.
3. In a medium-sized bowl, combine the honey, balsamic vinegar, maple syrup, olive oil, salt and pepper.
4. Add the strawberries and toss until they are fully coated.
5. Turn the berries out onto lined baking sheet and roast until the fruit has softened and the juices are just beginning to thicken, about 40 minutes.
6. To toast amaranth: Place a small, dry saucepan over high heat (don’t use a low-sided skillet as the amaranth will jump as they puff). Get the pan very hot before adding the amaranth; shake the pan continuously until most of the seeds have puffed up. If some of the seeds start turning a darker color — that’s o.k. Some are stubborn and don’t necessarily want to pop, so if you have a good mix of puffed and little-bit-darker amaranth, you’re in business. If you have extra, store in a little air-tight jar and use throughout the week.
Note on Yogurt Thickness: If your yogurt is too lose or you prefer a Greek-style yogurt, simply drain you homemade yogurt. Line a colander with cheesecloth or a very fine weave dishcloth and place it above a large bowl. Strain the yogurt. Either discard the liquid (whey) that strains away — alternatively, many folks cook with it. Scoop the remaining thicker yogurt into a bowl; enjoy.
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.