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.
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.