When I was single and living alone in the Bay Area, I made virtually the same thing for dinner each night. I ate meals quickly while in front of the computer. Or even worse: the television. This most often included what I call “Mexican Pizzas” which were basically glorified quesadillas baked in the oven until crispy. Sometimes, if I was really feeling like cooking, I’d whip up a quick stir-fry with frozen vegetables from Trader Joe’s or a mushroom frittata using pre-sliced mushrooms. Mostly, though, it was Mexican Pizzas — a good four or five nights a week. Today, thankfully, dinner looks a lot different. Meals in general look a lot different. How would I explain that difference? I think that ultimately how we feel about our life colors how we choose to feed ourselves and the importance that we place on preparing our own meals.
My parents have been divorced for well over a decade now. My mom lives with her dog Bailey, and my dad with a new partner. Every night for dinner my mom cooks herself a full meal: always something different with a wine she’s excited about and pretty, seasonal dinnerware. Every few months or so, my two sisters and I will text each other a photo of what we’re eating for dinner, and ever since my mom got a smart phone we’ve included her in the chain. The last time this happened I was working on my cookbook and enjoying a truly uninspired dinner of crackers, cheese, and carrot sticks. My youngest sister Zoe, who lives in Manhattan, sent a photo of take-out sushi. My middle sister, Rachael, sent a photo of a hangar steak and a baked potato. Then came my mom’s photo: a shot of the kitchen counter at home with a real place mat, a small glass of wine, flowers in the background, a big bowl of minestrone soup, homemade bread and butter. None of our dinners were better or worse than the other (well, my crackers and cheese left a lot to be desired, really) but my mom’s was different: it showed careful care and preparation. It showed that she valued so much this time in the evening of feeding herself that not only would she cook a well-rounded meal, but she’d also lay it out beautifully. This was the exact opposite of a Mexican Pizza in front of the computer.
When I lived alone, I always felt that I wanted to get dinner over with. It made me sad to eat by myself. Friends would pick up on this and invite me over to their apartments. Sometimes I’d go; sometimes I felt they were pity invitations and I’d skip dinner altogether and walk to yoga instead. But it’s not surprising that my mom’s photo contained such a perfectly-set scene: Growing up, eating dinner together was the one thing that was non-negotiable. No matter what sports practices my sisters and I had, how much homework was on the horizon, or how much my Dad needed to stay at the office to catch up on the books — you always made it to dinner. Period. And with very few exceptions, my mom cooked each and every night. Now these weren’t necessarily gourmet meals. We ate our way through many of the great comfort foods of the eighties and early nineties: baked chicken with Italian bread crumbs, chicken pot pie, meat loaf, lasagna, and “Bosoms” (our favorite meal to talk about to this day). Bosoms are puff pastry shells filled with creamy tuna and peas, topped with that little puff pastry round that acted as — you guessed it–the nipple. Yeah. That was a lot to explain to high school boyfriends. Rachael still makes them to this day. I think my Mom does, too.
This past weekend didn’t bring about much in the way of dinner in our house. Sam and I had an argument over the weekend. A pretty typical couple’s argument over nothing in particular but which grew in its own weird, incomprehensible ways and ended up lasting longer than either of us would’ve liked. We’re both stubborn people. I was fascinated to sort of observe myself over these few days as I completely lost my appetite and any desire to feed myself well. Finally when I got really hungry on Saturday night, guess what I made? That’s right: I broke out a package of corn tortillas, grated some cheddar cheese, sliced a few green onions and a couple of little tomatoes and preheated the oven. Even a small salad seemed too much work at that point. I needed something that would just fill me up quickly and taste good. Nothing fussy. Nothing that required a decision. No thoughts about seasonal flavor combinations or spice profiles. Just warm tortillas, beans and cheese.
Jenny Rosenstrach’s charming cookbook, Dinner: A Love Story, opens with a great quote on family dinner: “I found that if I was eating well, there was a good chance that I was living well, too. I found that when I prioritized dinner, a lot of other things seemed to fall into place … and perhaps most important, the simple act of carving out the ritual — a delicious homemade meal — gave every day purpose and meaning, no matter what else was going on in our lives.” I think this is what my mom would’ve said about why she prioritized dinner when we were kids; it was the one and only thing that anchored all of our frenzied days. And it was this anchor that I was missing this past weekend. The ritual of Sam and I dancing around each other in the kitchen making dinner each night. Sometimes from a cookbook, sometimes something our families used to make, more often than not something thrown together out of what we find in the refrigerator that sounds delicious.
The second Sam and I had finally hashed it out on Sunday evening, I set out to do something with all of the fresh vegetables that had originally been purchased days before with good intentions. I thinly sliced the spring radishes, blanched some asparagus, retrieved the last of the spicy arugula, and found a little nub of salty cheese. After toasting a big handful of almonds and mixing up my new favorite creamy avocado dressing — an impromptu spring meal was born. We sat down at the dining room table and ate quietly. It didn’t matter what was said (and not much was), and it wouldn’t really have mattered what exactly was eaten. It was a meal infused with meaning simply because we were sharing it together, again, and claiming that time as important.
In Tiny, Beautiful Things, Cheryl Strayed writes, “We are here to build the house. It’s our work, our job, the most important gig of all: to make a place that belongs to us, a structure composed of our own moral code. Not the code that echoes imposed cultural values, but the one that tells us on a visceral level what to do.” And that thing to do when I was growing up was to share a meal together, preferably dinner. And today? The reason I can’t stand to eat dinner alone and often feed myself poorly when the occasion arises is not so much because I don’t think I’m worth the effort. Instead, it’s because the ritual has been broken — a meal that has become, to me, so much about carving out time with loved ones is a difficult one to spend alone. On a visceral level, it’s a meal I want to share. It’s what comprises the feeling that, as Cheryl Strayed would say, I’ve a place that belongs to me. And someone sitting across the table who wants to live in that place, too.
Note: This post was inspired by an encouragement from my friend Shauna to write about what family dinner means to you. Shauna and Danny have a wonderful new book that is so much about sharing meals and feeding one another. If you’ve ever spent time with them, they are truly the epitome of “making a place that belongs to us” and you feel it from the moment you step through their door (also, they map out the week’s dinner on a sheet of paper and post it on the fridge which Blows. My. Mind).
This salad is spring in a bowl: the thinly-sliced radishes and green onions combine with the salty cheese, toasty almonds and creamy dressing – resulting in a most satisfying and balanced lunch. You could use a vegetable peeler to get nice, thin slices of the ricotta salata or simply crumble it for a more rustic salad. English peas aren’t in season here yet, but I think a handful folded in at the end of this salad would be pretty wonderful, too.
For the dressing:
For the salad:
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Spread the almonds out onto a small rimmed baking sheet and toast until fragrant and golden, 6-8 minutes.
Make the dressing: In the bowl of a food processor (or blender) combine the avocado, olive oil, lemon juice, vinegar, salt and a few grinds of pepper. Process until smooth. Add the yogurt at the end and process until combined. Taste and season with additional salt and pepper if desired.
Cook the pasta in a large pot of salted water until al dente. Drain and set aside to cool.
While the pasta is cooking, fill a bowl with ice water. Heat a large pot of water over medium-high heat and simmer the asparagus until just crisp-tender, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove asparagus from pot and place in ice bath to stop the cooking. Place cooled asparagus spears on clean surface, towel dry, and slice into 2-inch pieces.
In a large salad bowl, combine the cooked pasta, asparagus and 3/4 cup of the toasted almonds along with the arugula, radishes, green onion, ricotta salata, chives, salt and pepper. Fold in the avocado dressing and toss to combine. Serve at room temperature sprinkling each bowl with a pinch of the remaining toasted almonds. Cover and refrigerate leftovers for up to 2 days.
My good friend Keena was working in India for the last few months and just returned to Seattle, eager to experience as much Pacific Northwest summer as possible in September. I'm with her on this one: It just so happens that towards the end of this month, the farmers markets I've been doing will also come to an end, so things seem like they're both simultaneously gearing up (hike! picnic! beach!) and wrapping up at the same time as I also feel a sense of wanting to cram in as much as I can before the days start getting noticeably shorter. And truly: there's no better recipe to commemorate such efforts than these fresh corn grits with oil-poached summer tomatoes.
For many years, I've always made a summer to-do list. I usually set to work on it right at the beginning of June when the days feel long and ripe with possibility. The list often involves things like learning to bake sourdough bread or making homemade ricotta, doing an epic hike I'd read about in a local magazine, training for a marathon, or reading specific novels. It is always a pretty aspirational list, and I generally don't make much of a dent in it -- resulting in the guilty feeling come late August that I'd wasted too many lazy afternoons when I could've been baking sourdough or making ricotta or doing memorable, epic hikes. But this summer is going to be a bit different: there will be no list. We wait so long in Seattle for long stretches of sunny days, and now that it stays late until 9:30 (or later?), I want to see more of our friends and find stretches of time to do not much of anything except catch up, tan our legs and eat farmers market berries. That's my list.
I received The Sprouted Kitchen Bowl + Spoon cookbook in the mail not long before we moved to our new house, and I remember lying in bed and bookmarking pages I was excited to try but also feeling overwhelmed with where to start: the truth is that this summer has been a relatively low-inspiration / low energy time in the kitchen for me. I'd been chalking it up to pregnancy but when I think back and if I'm honest with myself, my cooking style tends to be very easy and produce-driven during these warmer months. I rarely break out complicated recipes, instead relying on fresh tomatoes and corn or zucchini and homemade pesto to guide me. But last night I cracked open Sara's book and pulled out a few peaches I've had sitting on the counter, fearing their season may be nearing its end. This morning as I was making coffee, I sliced up the peaches, toasted the pecans and churned away -- having a bite (or maybe two) before getting it into the freezer to firm up.
A triple berry summer crisp made with oats, quinoa flakes and hazelnuts. Summer in a skillet.
We just returned from my mom's cabin on Lake George in upstate New York where we often spend the 4th of July. As usual, each bedroom was packed with family members (this year the couch was even occupied for a night), and our days with reading, lounging on the dock, swimming a bit, maybe jogging down the road or playing tennis if you were feeling ambitious. We drank a notable amount of seltzer water; I managed to read three books and my mom threw us a family baby shower complete with balloons, chocolate cake and Mike's rhubarb bars. In previous years, my mom has planned most of the dinners and even some lunches, but for breakfast we'd all fend for ourselves. I'd often bake a pie or a batch of brownies in the afternoon and everyone would help out where they could, but she would largely do the shopping and brunt of the cooking. This year was different: having just moved from California to Vermont, my mom had a lot on her plate and sent out an email before the holiday weekend asking us all to chip in and help with the meals. Sam and I claimed Friday dinner: we grilled sausages and Sam made his famous deviled eggs. We cut up some unusually seedy watermelon that I found at the co-op in Burlington before we drove out to the lake, and I made a summery quinoa salad that I expected to be kind of epic. The trouble was that it wasn't. I overcooked the quinoa until it was kind of a congealed mush and everything just went downhill from there. But I knew that the idea was strong -- to pack a whole grain salad with all the things of summer (corn! tomatoes! basil!) -- so when we got home to Seattle I tried again. And this time it's a winner.