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.
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.