In the airport bathroom, it seemed as though all the women were changing into sequined sandals and little knit shirts with white capris. I hadn’t quite thought through the outfit change scenario — the fact that the temperature when I left Seattle at 11 p.m. might be different than it is in St. Barths at 3 p.m. Driving to the villa, the roads were narrow and cars slapped against palm leaves and bougainvillea as they rounded tight corners. 70-year old women walked topless on the beaches and iced tea cost eight dollars. Dinners were always eaten out, and it was balmy enough to leave with a sundress on and nothing more. Meals consisted of polenta fries, citrusy shaved artichoke salad, Sea Bream with butter and lemon, tuna tartare with avocado cream and thinly sliced radishes, lobster fritters cloaked in spicy aioli, and warm chocolate cake. And wine. Lots of wine. And then, with morning: a reset button.
A cup of strong coffee and a simple bowl of muesli and yogurt — the likes of which I recognized from home. Mornings felt nourishing and necessary, a way to break up the days of sensory overload. Muesli was the opposite of perfectly bronzed physiques, shiny yachts, and stylish cover-ups. It belonged in a whole other universe from the one of over-sized sunglasses, gold flip-flops, and wahoo kabobs. Muesli laid itself bare; It wasn’t hiding who it was or trying to be something it wasn’t: muesli was simply oats, nuts and seeds and was always there the moment I awoke.
Mosquitos would be out first thing in the morning, so the scent of citronella joined the more familiar smell of strong espresso brewing. The sun hot enough to burn your shoulders at 10 a.m., we’d finish breakfast and head down to the beach. And the day would unfold itself. During my few days in St. Barths, I read two books, swam in the ocean many times, found a nice collection of sea shells, and took showers outdoors. I ate wild boar risotto and drank Negronis. I might’ve worn gold flips-flops, but it depends on who’s asking. I might’ve worn a new floppy hat, too.
It felt like just the break I’d envisioned — but it also felt starkly different from anything familiar. Back home or otherwise. While I’ve traveled quite a bit, I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was about St. Barths that made it so so difficult to categorize. Because cruise ships don’t dock there, it really is serene, relatively quiet and starkly beautiful. But couched in that beauty is the sense that everything is over-the-top, from the plates piled with beef carpaccio to the long strands of onyx pearls women wear to the beach. Breakfast was the one time of day that felt familiar and easy, and not at all flashy.
When I returned home late Saturday night, Sam had a big vase of hydrangeas on the table, made me wilted arugula with a runny egg, and caught me up on everything I’d missed. I sifted through the mail and ambled around the house — I’d missed our house. And in the morning, Sunday morning, there was the paper. And I made a big bowl of muesli. There was a noticeable lack of sun, sure. And those gold flip-flops had made their way pretty quickly to the back of my closet. But it felt like the kind of morning I’d been having all week, except this time more familiar. This time, thankful for the tan and sea shells rattling around in my carry-on, but also really glad to be home.
Now, a few words on muesli: While you can certainly eat it much like you would granola (sprinkle it dry onto yogurt or add milk and treat it like a cold cereal), traditionally it’s a cold porridge of raw oats, nuts, and fruits that you soak in the refrigerator the night before serving in some combination of milk, apple juice, water, and/or yogurt. I tend to be a bit of a purist, but a lot of people like to grate an apple into their soaking muesli or toss in some frozen berries (they thaw and soften into the porridge).
I was doing a Marge granola tasting downtown a few weeks ago and a very sweet Swiss couple came up to my table and stared, astonishingly at the little cups of granola. The husband took a photo with his phone, the wife sniffed her sample and stared back and forth – first at me, then the granola. They didn’t speak much English, but eventually we’d established that they’d never seen granola before. The woman said to me in disbelief, “you burned muesli!” I tried to explain the draw of granola: it’s toasted and slightly sweet, and the clumps are ever-so-lovely in yogurt. I became granola’s national spokesperson for that one moment, and let me tell you, it wasn’t working. The astonished stares continued. There was another iphone photo of the granola. Then one of me (I can just imagine this being passed around their small town in Switzerland: proof of the American woman who burns muesli!). They couldn’t understand why you’d add maple syrup and oil to an already perfect mixture of oats, nuts and seeds.
And this, my friends, is why muesli can be a nice re-set button as we ever-so-slowly enter into the warmer spring months. I get the question a lot when teaching whole-grain breakfast classes and talking about muesli: why not just eat granola? And the answer is just as the Swiss couple indicated while walking away from my table: it can be nice to have the raw, stripped down version of something so great every now and again. If you want all of the nutrition of granola (good complex carbohydrates, protein, fiber) but are trying to watch your sugar or fat intake, muesli has your name written all over it. And once you find a blend you like and a routine for soaking it (if that’s your thing), it just might be something you look forward to in the mornings – I know I do.
Use this recipe as a template, substituting any nuts, seeds, or dried fruits you particularly like. If you want to avoid a trip to the bulk bins, feel free to use all oats instead of the three grains listed below – I happen to like all three because they add different color to each bowl, and I particularly love the darker flavor of rye flakes in the morning. Many people toast their oats and nuts when making muesli, too. If I’m soaking my muesli, I tend to skip this step because I find it all softens the same way into my yogurt, so it feels like an unnecessary step. But if you’re going to enjoy this dry much like granola, feel free to toast your dry oats and nuts in a 350 F oven for 7-10 minutes, or until fragrant.
In a large bowl, combine all dry ingredients. Transfer to a large jar (quart-size Mason jar works well here), and enjoy as you would granola or any other cereal, adding milk/nut milks/yogurt as you please.
Alternatively, soak your muesli overnight: For a single serving, scoop out ¾ cup muesli and stir it into ½ cup yogurt and ¼ cup milk or apple juice. Let sit in the refrigerator for at least 3 hours and up to overnight. After soaking, remove muesli from the fridge and allow it to come to room temperature, about 10-15 minutes. Add an extra splash of milk if you like your muesli a bit looser (I do), a dollop of honey or stir in your favorite jam.
The Thanksgiving Table
Today is a different kind of day. Usually posts on this blog come about with the narrative and I manage to squeeze in a recipe. But sometimes when you really stumble upon a winning recipe, it speaks for itself. We'll likely make these beans for Thanksgiving this year. They're one of those simple stunners that you initially think couldn't be much of a thing. And then they come out of the oven all sweet and withered and flecked with herbs. You try one and you realize they are, in fact, a pretty big thing.
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.
It has begun. Talk of who is bringing what, where we'll buy the turkey, what kind of pies I'll make, early morning texts concerning brussels sprouts. There's no getting around it: Thanksgiving is on its way. And with it comes the inevitable reflecting back and thinking about what we're thankful for. And about traditions. The funny thing about traditions is that they exist because they've been around for a long time. Year after year after year. But then, one Thanksgiving maybe there's something new at the table.
I didn't expect green beans to bring up such a great discussion on traditions, sharing of poems and how a piece of writing can linger with you. So thank you for that. Your comments pointed out how important people and place are and how food takes the back seat when it comes right down to it. Even if you feel quite warm towards Thanksgiving and are looking forward to next week, reading about recipe suggestions and meal planning online and in magazines can start to feel tiresome right about now. Why? Because I suppose when it all comes down to it, in the big picture it doesn't matter what we all serve anyway. Next year, you likely won't remember one year's vegetable side dish from another. What you'll remember are the markers that dotted the year for you: whom you sat next to at the table, a toast or grace, and the sense of gratitude you felt for something -- large or small.
I got a text from my mom the other day that read: demerara sugar? I responded back with a question mark, not sure what she was referencing. It turns out she was experimenting with a new pie recipe that called for the natural sugar and wasn't sure why she couldn't just use white sugar as that's what she's always done in the past. A few days later we talked on the phone and she mentioned she'd let me take charge of the salad for Thanksgiving this year as long as there was no kale. No kale! And I wanted to do the mashed potatoes? Would they still be made with butter and milk? In short, we're always willing to mix things up in the Gordon household. Whether it's inspiration from a food magazine, friend or coworker, either my mom or one of my sisters will often have an idea for something new to try at the holiday table. But what I've slowly learned is that it can't really be that different: there must be pumpkin pie, the can of cranberry sauce is necessary even though not many people actually eat it, the onion casserole is non-negotiable, the salad can't be too out there, and the potatoes must be made with ample butter and milk. And while I was really scheming up an epic kale salad to make this year, there's a big part of me that gets it, too: if we change things too much we won't recognize the part of the day that comes to mean so much: the pure recognition. We take comfort in traditions because we recognize them -- because they're always there, year after year. And so today I present to you (mom, are you reading?): this year's Gordon family Thanksgiving salad.