Last week I didn’t write a blog post because we were in one of two places, both without Internet. First, it’s likely we were on an Amtrak train headed to Essex, Montana. Second, it’s even more likely that we were actually tucked away in the lodge of the mountain inn where we were staying. As you likely already know if you’ve been around here for some time, Sam loves trains. I mean really, really loves trains. He goes on a 2-week trip each year to explore different parts of the country — to actually see and get a sense of the bigness of the miles going by. If flying desensitizes us to distance, Sam keeps that sensitivity warm with his preference for trains (and cars, and ships, and walking. Really. He’s an evangelist on this point). So last week, we not only took a train to a rather remote Montana Inn, but stayed in a restored 1895 caboose-turned-cabin while there. Sam was in heaven, as you can imagine. I was too, thanks to the miles and miles of snowshoe trails and complete and utter lack of technology. And witnessing Sam in heaven. That does it for me, too.
We all tell ourselves we should unplug (myself included) and may even try to do it for a weekend and reflect on how we did. But I haven’t been in a situation in quite some time where I didn’t have any choice about the matter — where there was absolutely no cell access, no land line, no television, no Internet (I should say, there was spotty wireless access in the basement bar in the lodge, and I did sneak down there a few times to text family and put up a few Instagram photos). So the days went something like this: snowshoe, read, sit by the fire, repeat. We brought a few flasks of cocktails and nursed those in the evening. The days felt long and full.
For those of you who read this post about our first train trip, you’ll understand that there was a bit at stake with this second overnight train trip: could we do it? Would it even be enjoyable? Would we still like one another at the end of it? This was our train do-over, really, and I’m happy to report that it went famously. The trip from Seattle to Essex is a quick overnight ride: we boarded around 4:30 p.m. and by the time we woke up in the morning we were practically there. I couldn’t stop looking out the window in the early morning hours before breakfast. The landscape was winter encapsulated: craggy snow-covered mountains, abandoned barns, tiny little mountain towns with backyards that could each tell their own story. Their own long story.
When we got back to Seattle, Sam sent me a short opinion piece in The New York Times called The Quiet Ones. The subject of the piece is the “Quiet Car” that some Amtrak commuter trains maintain, a place for passengers to read, gaze out the window, write or just get away from their loud cell-phone-chatting seat mate. It is a car devoted solely to quiet. There is a mutual understanding that this must be followed and the conductor makes an announcement at the beginning of each trip to ensure that everyone understands.
After reading the piece, I became enamored with one of the last lines: “We’re a tribe, we quiet ones, we readers and thinkers and letter writers, we daydreamers and gazers out of windows.” This is how I started to feel in Montana after not too much time at all. Ironically, with the lack of connectedness I was experiencing without email or cell access, I felt more connected to other things that would usually go unnoticed in the day. I began to nod at our inn mates as I walked by, recognizing and acknowledging them for who they were: escapees from the modern world — even for just a day or two. We all listened for the trains and began to memorize their daily schedule, taking comfort in the regularity and reliability of the whistle in the train yard right below the cabins.
The day we left, there was a big group checking in that had been coming for 30 years straight. I’d heard the inn staff talking about them — apparently they’d rented out the entire second floor and the bar knew from experience to stock up on extra whiskey. They were rumored to be a rowdy bunch. Maybe the rowdiness set in after we departed because the only evidence of the group that I saw that day were a few older women who came to sit next to me by the fire to read. I was taking notes on a book I’d brought along and happened to drop my pen. Normally the noise would be nothing–you or I wouldn’t even notice it on an average day. But both women looked up, startled, and I found myself apologizing profusely. We all started laughing and began talking about how the quiet is just different in Montana. It settles in deep.
So while I have yet to experience The Quiet Car on an Amtrak train, I experienced our own piece of it this past week and loved every second of it. I’ve showed you a few photos here of energy bars and I must tell you: they didn’t make the trip. I’d had grand hopes of packing homemade snacks, but the hours before we left had me racing around to finish up too many last minute things (those never-ending lists!), so it simply didn’t happen. It’s too bad because, in hindsight, I have to say that these are very Montana-worthy bars. For now though, they’re very Wednesday morning-worthy bars and what’s been sustaining us through longer-than-usual afternoons as we catch up with work.
These bars were inspired by a collision of forces: Tracy made her own version of Lara Bars with dates that I’ve been eying ever since reading her post. Then my other friend Cheryl made a version using cocoa which, likewise, I couldn’t stop thinking about. Then I read about this Almond Joy Butter and decided it was time to come up with a no-bake energy bar recipe that utilized that very special marriage of flavors: coconut, almond and cocoa. Since I tend to try and eek whole grains into pretty much everything these days, these have oats and quinoa flakes stirred in at the very end and are sweetened solely with dates and just a swirl of honey.
I hope you have a most wonderful rest of the week — perhaps even claiming a seat in your own Quiet Car somewhere.
A few words on this simple recipe: I use Medjool dates for these bars because they’re pretty large in size and are super soft and sweet. If you see Deglet Noor dates at the store, they’ll work just fine, too. And if you’re not familiar with quinoa flakes, I buy them in a box from Ancient Harvest; they’re essentially quinoa that’s pressed down into really thin flakes so you can make a quick quinoa hot cereal in a matter of seconds, really. I don’t do that, but I do add the flakes to cookies, breads and bars for extra protein and a bit of texture. They’re pretty great; I hope you try them out in your own kitchen — I’m still experimenting with them, so we’re both a bit new to the game if you haven’t worked with them much. But here’s a good start: the bars that were meant for Montana but never quite made it.
Line an 8-inch square baking pan with enough parchment so that it hangs over each side. Place almonds and cashews in a food processor and process until both are ground well but not to the point where they’re too fine and sandy, about 20 seconds. Pour chopped nuts into a bowl and set aside.
Put dates in the food processor and process continuously for 1-2 minutes (depending on your dates), or until they begin to come together in one mass. Add coconut, oats, half of the chopped nut mixture, cacao powder, honey, coconut oil, cardamom, ginger and salt. Process just until the mixture comes together. It can have a tendency to all get stuck on one side of the food processor and you want to make sure the ingredients on the very bottom are getting incorporated too, so scoop the sides and bottom as necessary. You’ll process for about 3 minutes.
Turn the mixture into a medium bowl and add the quinoa flakes and other half of nut mixture. I use my hands here to knead the “dough” and thoroughly incorporate the flakes and nuts. The “dough” shouldn’t be fully uniform—you want to see little bits of nuts and grains.
Scoop into the prepared pan. Use your hands or the back of a spatula to press down and create an even, firm layer. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours (or freeze for 45 minutes if in a hurry) — this will help firm them up so you can cut them easily.
When ready to slice, lift the bars right out of the pan by grabbing onto the overhanging parchment paper. Cut into small squares (I usually opt for about a 2 by 3” size). Refrigerate in an airtight container for up to 7 days. Alternatively, wrap individually in plastic wrap and freeze for up to 3 months.
Winter Comfort Food
I intended on baking holiday cookies to share with you today, but when I sat down to brainstorm all I could think about, truly, was the morning porridge I've been making and how that's really what I wanted to send you away with. The holiday season always seems to zoom on by at its own clip with little regard for how most of us wish it would just slow down, and this year feels like no exception. We got our tree last week and I've been making a point to sit in the living room and admire the twinkle as much as possible. I have lofty goals of snowflakes and gingerbread men and stringing cranberries and popcorn, but I'm also trying to get comfortable with the fact that everything may not get done, and that sitting amongst the twinkle is really the most important. That and a warm breakfast before the day spins into gear. This multi-grain porridge has proved to be a saving grace on busy weekday mornings, and it reheats beautifully so I've been making a big pot and bringing it to work with some extra chopped almonds and fresh pomegranate seeds. While cookies are certainly on the horizon, I think I'll have this recipe to thank for getting us through the busy days ahead.
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).
If I asked you about what you like to cook at home when the week gets busy, I'm willing to bet it might be something simple. While there are countless websites and blogs and innumerable resources to find any kind of recipe we may crave, it's often the simple, repetitive dishes that we've either grown up with or come to love that call to us when cooking (or life in general) seems overwhelming or when we're feeling depleted. While my go-to is typically breakfast burritos or whole grain bowls, this Curried Cauliflower Couscous with Chickpeas and Chard would make one very fine, very doable house meal on rotation. The adaptations are endless, and its made from largely pantry ingredients. I never thought I'd hop on the cauliflower "rice" bandwagon, but I have to say after making it a few times, I get the hype.
People describe raising young kids as a particular season in life. I hadn't heard this until we had a baby, but it brought me a lot of comfort when I'd start to let my mind wander, late at night between feedings, to fears that we'd never travel internationally again or have a sit-down meal in our dining room. Would I ever eat a cardamom bun in Sweden? Soak in Iceland? I loved the heck out of our tiny Oliver, but man what had we done?! Friends would swoop in and reassure us that this was just a season, a blip in the big picture of it all. They promised we'd likely not even remember walking around the house in circles singing made-up songs while eating freezer burritos at odd hours of the day (or night). And it's true.
Oliver is turning two next month, and those all-encompassing baby days feel like a different time, a different Us. In many ways, dare I say it, Toddlerhood actually feels a bit harder. Lately Oliver has become extremely opinionated about what he will and will not wear -- and he enforces these opinions with fervor. Don't get near the kid with a button-down shirt. This week at least. He's obsessed with his rain boots and if it were up to him, he'd keep them on at all times, especially during meals. He insists on ketchup with everything (I created a damn monster), has learned the word "trash" and insists on throwing found items away on his own that really, truly are not trash. I came to pick him up from daycare the other day and he was randomly wearing a bike helmet -- his teacher mentioned he'd had it on most of the day and really, really didn't want to take it off. The kid has FEELINGS. I love that about him, and wouldn't want it any other way. But, man it's also exhausting.
It's been a uniformly gray and rainy week in Seattle, and I'd planned on making a big pot of salmon chowder to have for the weekend, but then the new issue of Bon Appetit landed on my doorstep with that inviting "Pies for Dinner" cover, and I started to think about how long it's been since I made my very favorite recipe from my cookbook, Whole Grain Mornings. I'm often asked at book events which recipe I love most, and it's a tough one to answer because I have favorites for different moods or occasions, but I'd say that this savory tart is right up there. The cornmeal millet crust is one of my party tricks; when we need a quick brunch recipe, this is what I pull out of my back pocket because it's so simple and delicious. This is a no-roll, no fuss crust with a slightly sandy, crumbly texture thanks to the cornmeal, and a delightful crunch from the millet. In the past, I've used the crust and custard recipe as the base for any number of fillings: on The Kitchn last year, I did a version with greens and gruyere, and I teach cooking classes that often include a version heavy on local mushrooms and shallot. So if you are not keen on salmon or have some vegetables you're looking to use up this week, feel free to fold in whatever is inspiring you right now. Sometimes at this point in winter that can be hard, so hopefully this recipe may help a little.