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.
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 always force myself to wait until after Halloween to start thinking much about holiday pies or, really, future holidays in general. But this year I cheated a bit, tempted heavily by the lure of a warmly-spiced sweet potato pie that I used to make back when I baked pies for a living in the Bay Area (way back when). We seem to always have sweet potatoes around as they're one of Oliver's favorite foods, and when I roast them for his lunch I've been wishing I could turn them into a silky pie instead. So the other day I reserved part of the sweet potatoes for me. For a pie that I've made hundreds of times in the past, this time reimagined with fragrant brown butter, sweetened solely with maple syrup, and baked into a flaky kamut crust. We haven't started talking about the Thanksgiving menu yet this year, but I know one thing for sure: this sweet potato pie will make an appearance.
This time last week I was up in the Skagit River Valley sitting in the early fall sun eating wood-fired bagels and chatting with farmers, millers and bakers at the Kneading Conference West. I made homemade soba noodles, learned the ins and outs of sourdough starters, and sat in on a session where we tasted crackers baked with single varietal wheats. It was like wine tasting, but with wheat and the whole time I kept pinching myself, thinking: THESE ARE MY PEOPLE! I don't get the opportunity to be a student much these days -- usually on the other side of things teaching cooking classes or educating people at the farmers markets about whole grains and natural sugars. So to just sit and listen with a fresh (red!) notebook and a new pen was surprisingly refreshing. I miss it already. Thankfully, this cookie recipe has come back as a memorable souvenir, and one that is sure to be in high rotation in our house in the coming months.
Strolling New York City streets during the height of fall when all the leaves are changing and golden light glints off the brownstone windows. This is what I envisioned when I bought tickets to attend my cousin's September wedding earlier this month: Sam and I would extend the trip for a good day or two so we could experience a little bit of fall in the city. We'd finally eat at Prune and have scones and coffee at Buvette, as we always do. Sam wanted to take me to Russ and Daughters, and we'd try to sneak in a new bakery or ice cream shop for good measure. Well, as some of you likely know, my thinking on the weather was premature. New York City fall had yet to descend and, instead, we ambled around the city in a mix of humidity and rain. When we returned home I found myself excited about the crisp evening air, and the fact that the tree across the street had turned a rusty shade of amber. It was time to do a little baking.
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.