A few days ago, it snowed in Seattle. And the days leading up to it were cold with a capital C. I broke out my puffy vests and started wearing my wool hat on walks to the library. While I’ve been snatching up daffodils and tulips whenever I’m at the market, let’s just say that it’s not boating weather here yet. But it’s close. We’re on the brink and it seems everyone can sense it: Saturday afternoon the cherry blossoms popped out from every street corner and the sun was gracing the wood slats of our upstairs room. On Sunday we hiked to Wallace Falls where there were patches of unexpected snow, but there was also genuine bursts of sun and fresh pine air. Hikers were draped over rocks sharing their bagged lunches and at one point on our descent, we sat towards the side of the trail and closed our eyes, just soaking in the tentative warmth. There were dogs off leash, families snapping photos, and one lone frisbee. See? we’re on the brink.
The most recent issue of Kinfolk had a piece called “Spring Renewal,” in which Erin Propp and Travis Rogers discuss ways to renew themselves at home and get ready for spring, including drying laundry on the line, eating in season, planting a garden, visiting a neighbor, and trying a new food. I used to get a lot of satisfaction from making these sorts of lists, but then it comes to the end of the season and I ultimately end up feeling disappointed by my lack of progress, deciding to push certain things off until the next year. While it’s always wonderful to daydream, it’s good to stand firmly planted in the reality of your day-to-day life, too. And as much as I wish that ours included drying clothes on a line, it just doesn’t. So instead of mapping out specific goals and plans for the spring and summer, Sam and I have simply said we want to get outside more. See more of the region this year. Last spring and summer I was immersed in the writing of the book and was pretty diligent about not taking much time off on the weekends. But this spring is a different story. Each passing day is just a little bit longer, our lawn almost needs mowing, and I ordered my first ever batch of seeds from the Burpee catalog (radishes, carrots, snap peas, and kale!). We’re ready.
The above few photos were taken on Whidbey Island where we recently got out on a very chilly beach walk and had mussels, garlic bread and a pint of dark beer in Coupeville. We both had pretty hearty to-do lists that day and part of me really wanted to stay home, read the paper and go to the farmers’ market, but we hopped on the ferry, got some fresh air, and came back feeling all the more eager for the next outing.
In addition to weekend day trips and lofty camping and hiking plans, one thing I know for sure will help with the excitement and enthusiasm for spring (as if you needed help in that arena) is the beautiful and inspired cookbook, Vegetable Literacy by Deborah Madison. I get quite a few cookbooks in the mail from publishers and PR folks and many of them I end up finding new homes for, but Madison’s book has landed a spot front and center on our cookbook shelf. It’s not only beautiful (boasting photography from two of my favorite food photographers working today, Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton), but it gives you a host of new ways to prepare your favorite vegetables and a wealth of information on herbs, grains and roots that may even be new to you. Madison’s recipes are approachable and seem very do-able; nothing has 17 steps or takes a day in the kitchen to prepare.
The book really encourages giving pause — taking a moment to rethink the way you use vegetables and to get to know the relationship between them (for example, knowing that the Cabbage family includes arugula, broccoli and brussels sprouts can help a great deal when trying to brainstorm complimentary vegetables in a salad or how best to substitue an ingredient that you can’t track down). There are a handful of vegetable-focused books coming out this spring, and I have a feeling this is the one I’ll be reaching for the most.
The first recipe from this book that caught my eye was this saucy braised fennel. I’ve been roasting fennel lately, and so love the way it draws out its slightly sweet, mild anise flavor — but I’d yet to try braising it. Anyone who has cooked from Debora Madison’s cookbooks knows that her recipes hardly need tinkering with. But because I hate wasting the fennel stalks and greens, I did end up chopping them finely and folding them into the braise (Madison suggests using them as garnish, but I wanted to cook them down a bit in the braise itself). And at the last minute, I tossed in bit more garlic and a few tablespoons of capers for an extra salty little punch. I served this deliciously saucy mess of spring vegetables with a bowl of quinoa and a little soft chèvre and parsley on the side. When you find yourself sitting at home waiting for a truly warm spring day, this will surely help speed things along.
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.