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.
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.