Harold is someone I’ve written about many times before, but not here. I wrote about Harold for my college entrance essay, for a graduate school speech, and even mentioned him in my book proposal last year. He’s unassuming in appearance, but not in character — you likely wouldn’t look twice as you walked by him on the street. He’s generous with his time and always up for helping when the cards are down. He has good taste in clothes, enjoys a great meal, and is always full of ideas for how to fill out a day just right. Before I boarded a plane for Ghana the summer of my junior year in college, I thought about Harold. When I got the jitters about leaving my friends and family to move to Seattle, I thought about Harold.
The funny thing is, Harold isn’t real (bear with me here. Really). He’s a character from Harold and the Purple Crayon, a children’s book my mom read to me as a little girl. About ten years ago, she gave me a copy for Christmas, and it sits on the bookshelf in my office today. If you’re not familiar with the story, Harold’s a young boy armed with a purple crayon and he thinks through what he’d like to surround himself with — what he’d like his world to look like–and then simply draws it and it comes to be. Want a full moon tonight and a long evening walk? Harold breaks out the crayon. Care for a long slide to slide down on a sunny afternoon? Harold draws it. The idea behind the book and the charming character of Harold is that we can all create the day we wish to have, the month we really need, or the year we hope for if we use our purple crayons carefully and deliberately — if we simply imagine how we’d like for it to look and set out to begin making it happen. So on New Years Day, I thought about Harold again. I thought about how I’d like this year to look for myself, for Sam and I, and for my business.
Truthfully, I started thinking about 2013 the week before as we drove up the Oregon Coast on our way back to Seattle (you’ll see a few photos here, as promised). I got to show Sam around the towering Redwoods and my hometown of Eureka where we stopped for messy burritos and used books. The next day we continued North to drive up the coast together for the first time, accompanied by Bruce Springsteen for a good many miles. There was a delightful breakfast at the Pancake Mill outside of Coos Bay, a stop in to see our friend Eli in Eugene, and a few silly tourist landmarks (that drive through tree! Prefontaine’s statue!) We made it home to a very cold house and an epically large stack of mail. I was glad to be home. I was ready to settle in again.
The next day was New Year’s Eve and we decided to stay in with a bottle of champagne, good cheese and crackers and Heidi’s simple tomato soup that I can’t seem to get enough of on these winter days. It was just what we wanted for the night. Neither of us are big New Years party people. I find that going out is generally an over-priced evening that feels more like an obligation to yourself or the occasion or someone else than a genuinely good time. Instead, we drew out what we wanted our night to look like and made it so. We took a cue from Harold, clutching champagne glasses, purple crayons in tow.
Don’t get me wrong: I realize the idea behind Harold and the Purple Crayon is simplistic at best. It is a children’s story after all. When it comes right down to it in our day-to-day lives, there are so many factors we can’t control that would certainly get in the way of drawing, so to speak, something you’d like for yourself and having it just come to fruition. There’s the very real issue of money, the possibility of sickness or family duress, of work obligations, or stresses outside of your control. When I think of this year and talk about it with Sam, I’m not talking about moving into a house we can’t afford, taking a big trip to New Zealand, or opening up a large kitchen that would belong only to Marge. Those things simply aren’t in the cards.
But I do think that the spirit of New Years can be a pretty powerful thing. The thought that we can set one foot in front of the other and begin envisioning a different path for ourselves if we so choose. In the imagining of it all comes the promise of possibility. But you’ve got to get to the imagining part first. I found a funny thing to be true this year: it was far easier to set goals for my business than it was for myself. For Marge, I have a few new products we’re going to launch for spring/summer, I have specific plans for media outreach, and am going to work more aggressively on acquiring new vendors — something I simply hadn’t had time to do while writing the book. For myself? I felt stuck. Sure, I wanted to be more regular with my yoga practice and spend more time reading. But I couldn’t actually envision myself outside of my business or my work life.
A few days after New Years, Sam and I went to my new favorite spot in Seattle, The Wandering Goose, and shared plates of fried chicken, biscuits and greens and made lists of our resolutions: we made one column for our businesses, one for ourselves as individuals, and one for us as a couple. This helped. Putting things down on paper made it start to feel more real. Outside of Marge, I want to take my great grandfather’s cameras into the shop to get looked at and begin learning to shoot film. I want to see Palm Springs and New Orleans. I want to train for another marathon. I want to cook more dinners that are out of our comfort zone, and hike and camp the heck out of this summer. Oh, and grow tomatoes. Each one makes me smile to type. My purple crayon is poised for this year. All are doable, I think. And all are deliberate: in setting them down on paper and imagining them, as Harold would do, I’m accountable for them and am ready to start making them happen.
I suppose this gratin is a step in the right direction of one of my hopes for this year — of getting in the kitchen and cooking more religiously and routinely in the evenings. I do a lot of cooking for writing projects and recipe development for others, but I don’t spend as much time pushing myself in our kitchen for no other reason than to have dinner.
The idea for this gratin was born from a “kale sale” at the farmers market — I’m sure your market isn’t much different than ours right now: greens, onions or squash. Perhaps an occasional leek. So this weekend, I brought home a poppy seed roll for Sam, a few apples, and a pile of kale and set off to do something with it that I hadn’t done before. I knew I wanted the gratin to be slightly creamy and we had a big nub or Parmesan I wanted to use up. I love hearty greens and grains together, so I folded in some millet for a little texture and crunch. The result was just as I’d hoped: a hearty side dish (or even main dish) with some of the best of what winter’s got to offer right now. And a promise for more time in the kitchen to come. Happy New Year! I know 2013’s going to be a good one — here and beyond.
Use any winter greens you’d like for this recipe. I just happened to have kale (I used two kinds: lacinato and purple kale), but mustard greens or mizuna would be great and would add a little of their characteristic spiciness. Next time I make this gratin, I might scatter some bread crumbs over the top, or thinly slice a sweet potato and layer that in as well. The millet cooks most of the way in the gratin itself, so no need to pre-cook it: It will come out a bit chewy and a touch crunchy, which I really liked here. Lots of flavor; lots of texture.
Preheat oven to 375 F. Lightly butter a 1 ½ or 2-quart baking dish. Soak the millet in a bowl of warm water while you set out to prepare the other ingredients.
Boil a large pot of salted water, and add the kale. Cook until just softened, about 2-3 minutes. I did mine in two batches as all the kale wouldn’t all fit in our large pot. Use a slotted spoon and transfer the kale to a large bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. Remove from the cool water and, using your hands, squeeze as much water from the kale as possible and lay it out on good work surface. The kale tends to clump into balls when squeezed, so spend a few moments separating it and “declumping” it.
Heat oil in a small nonstick skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Add the shallot and cook, stirring often, until translucent, about 4-5 minutes. Add the garlic and thyme, and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute more. In a large mixing bowl, combine the drained kale and cooked shallots. Drain the millet completely and add that as well.
In a small bowl, whisk together the eggs, 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese, heavy cream, milk, nutmeg, salt, black pepper and chile powder. Pour the liquid over the kale mixture and stir well to combine. Turn out into the prepared baking dish and top with remaining 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese.
Bake for 20 minutes, then increase the heat to 400 F and bake for an additional 10-15 minutes, or until cheese is completely melted, the top is browned and the edges are bubbling. Allow to cool and set for 15 minutes before serving. Cover leftovers and refrigerate for up to 3 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.