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.
Early Fall Baking
Last weekend we went apple picking up near Yakima, a good three hours east of Seattle. We drove over to Harmony Orchards with our friends Brandi and John and met up with many other groups and families to amble about the rows and rows of apples in the unusually warm sun. We missed the annual picking last year as we were on our honeymoon, but the previous year was the one in which we made the colossal mistake of picking over 70 pounds of apples. I've never made so much applesauce in my life. This year we practiced restraint in bringing home a cool 38 pounds and after getting them all situated in the basement, I started to leaf through a few cookbooks looking for a great apple recipe -- something, preferably, that used quite a few apples, wasn't too sweet and could double as breakfast or dessert (really, the best kind of recipe). And that's exactly what we have in these Custardy Apple Squares.
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 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.
I rarely make muffins at home and never order one when I'm out and about as I find they're often far too sweet and never truly that satisfying. I realize, too, in looking back at my cookbook that there's only one muffin recipe throughout. Case in point: I'm tentative on muffins. But not these. We've been pretty thrilled to have this healthier version of Morning Glory muffins on the counter this week; they have little bits of apple, raisins, walnuts, and grated carrot and are cloaked in a buttery oat crumble topping -- quite the opposite of your boring coffeeshop fare. I thought long and hard about doing a Valentine's post, some festive cookie or confection that would be share-worthy this weekend, but the more we talked about what our weekend would really look like, it involved something special for breakfast instead. I don't remember the last time a Valentine's Day fell on a Saturday, so we have big plans to have breakfast in bed and if your plans are even remotely similar, these muffins would be a fine inclusion.
I generally work on weekends. It's something I've come to terms with only because I know it won't last forever. I write. I bake. But those two things don't always pay the bills, so I work retail on the weekends and dream of the day when I'll have a Sunday like this one: