I have an office in the upstairs of our house, but I’m often found camped-out at the kitchen table or nudged into our small breakfast nook — coffee cup, computer, and messy notes scattered about. We live in an old craftsman that boasts only one heating vent on the second floor, so in the winter it’s freezing and in the summer it can get pretty stuffy and uncomfortable. Spring, on the other hand, is the season I claim it all back. Working upstairs with the morning birds, the one curious roof-top squirrel, and the changing afternoon light — it feels like my world alone. It’s not shared with household bills, neighbor kids walking by, or the UPS man ringing the bell. It’s just me, and I have to say: I notice a change in my writing, in the cadence of my day and in my mood. Everything feels a bit calmer and less harried. There’s a tiny, noticeable transformation. Hello from up here.
I just started Michael Pollan’s new book, Cooked. Truthfully, I’m not all that far along, but I’m fascinated by his stories of North Carolina barbecues and his sentiments on the culture and meaning behind home cooking. The phrase that has stayed with me the most: “And in almost every dish, you can find, besides the culinary ingredients, the ingredients of a story: a beginning, middle and an end.” Simple enough sentiments, really, but as a writer and a former teacher I love the emphasis on the unveiling of a story through food — on ingredients as the stepping stones towards a greater narrative.
I saw a recipe for a Fresh Pea Soup in a recent issue of Sunset magazine and that’s where the inspiration for this recipe came from. While similar in base components (peas, onions and mint) my version strays by folding in cooked quinoa for texture (and umph — it feels a bit more like a stew than a thin soup), toasty almonds, and a lemony yogurt sauce. We don’t often shop at Trader Joe’s, but there are a few things I do like to buy there. The essentials, really: cheese, white vermouth, trail mix, and nuts. And the other day while waiting for my car to be fixed, I was strolling the aisles and came across a little bag of fresh shelled English peas. And so: the transformation began.
Last year around this time I told you a little bit about our garden. Sam built raised beds for the backyard, I rounded up soil to fill them and started spending mornings working in the yard before the day kicked into high gear. I bought starts that year — convinced that seeds were too advanced and, really, I didn’t know what I was doing in the first place. Those small starts turned into a big crop of basil, thyme, beets, some boisterous kale, and a few very odd cabbages. This year I planted seeds instead of starts, carefully reading the directions on each package. I spaced them just as instructed, labeled them with a little wooden stick so I would’t forget what was what, and check in on the garden boxes often (as if much really happens in 6 or 8 hours). And guess what? In the past few weeks, everything’s sprouting: I can see the possibility of beans and peas and eventual sunflowers and ears of corn. I can see signs of arugula, parsley and butter lettuce. I can look ahead and see the meals to come. I can envision the story.
This soup is evidence that a few very basic ingredients can blend together into a vibrant spring mess of green right before your eyes. The transformation is easy to see; not as easy to see: the story. It’s a tale of being on the verge. A house and a garden on the verge. A season on the verge. We’re just tiptoeing up to the edge of a canyon — summer — and looking out at all that’s to come. The hiking, fresh tomatoes, camping, beach runs and late-night dinners outside. Working the farmers markets for Marge, the picnic tables, cocktails and visit to my mom’s cabin. This soup is just the beginning and a glimpse towards the stories that lie ahead, waiting.
For most soups, I use a low-sodium broth so I can ultimately control the amount of salt. And because all brands are different, you may want to add a little more salt to your finished soup at the end. The lemony yogurt sauce is great to have around in general — I use it on grains, savory crepes or folded into cold pasta. This recipe makes just enough to have with your soup, so feel free to double (or quadruple) the recipe if you want to have more on hand. Sam insists on sprinkling his soup with a little flaky salt at the end, so I’ve included that in the recipe below.
For Lemony Yogurt:
Make the lemony yogurt: In a small bowl, whisk together the yogurt, lemon juice, lemon zest and chives. Set aside.
Make the soup: Preheat the oven to 350 F. Lay the almonds out on a small, rimmed baking sheet and toast for 5-6 minutes or until fragrant and golden brown. Set aside.
Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and salt and cook until transluscent, 5-6 minutes. Stir as needed to avoid sticking. Add 2 cups of the vegetable broth and increase the heat to medium-high to bring to a boil. Add the fresh peas and cook until fork-tender, 3-4 minutes.
In a blender (or using an immersion blender) puree the pea mixture along with the mint and a few grinds of fresh black pepper until smooth. Pour back into the saucepan and stir in the quinoa over medium heat until hot enough to serve. If the soup seems too thick, add 1/2 cup additional broth (or more if you’d like). Taste and adjust the seasoning if needed.
To serve: Ladle the soup into small bowls. Top with a dollop of lemon yogurt and a few spoonfuls to toasted almonds. Sprinkle with a little flaky salt. Cover and refrigerate any leftovers for up to 3 days.
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 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.
This time last week I was up in the Skagit River Valley sitting in the early fall sun eating wood-fired bagels and chatting with farmers, millers and bakers at the Kneading Conference West. I made homemade soba noodles, learned the ins and outs of sourdough starters, and sat in on a session where we tasted crackers baked with single varietal wheats. It was like wine tasting, but with wheat and the whole time I kept pinching myself, thinking: THESE ARE MY PEOPLE! I don't get the opportunity to be a student much these days -- usually on the other side of things teaching cooking classes or educating people at the farmers markets about whole grains and natural sugars. So to just sit and listen with a fresh (red!) notebook and a new pen was surprisingly refreshing. I miss it already. Thankfully, this cookie recipe has come back as a memorable souvenir, and one that is sure to be in high rotation in our house in the coming months.
Strolling New York City streets during the height of fall when all the leaves are changing and golden light glints off the brownstone windows. This is what I envisioned when I bought tickets to attend my cousin's September wedding earlier this month: Sam and I would extend the trip for a good day or two so we could experience a little bit of fall in the city. We'd finally eat at Prune and have scones and coffee at Buvette, as we always do. Sam wanted to take me to Russ and Daughters, and we'd try to sneak in a new bakery or ice cream shop for good measure. Well, as some of you likely know, my thinking on the weather was premature. New York City fall had yet to descend and, instead, we ambled around the city in a mix of humidity and rain. When we returned home I found myself excited about the crisp evening air, and the fact that the tree across the street had turned a rusty shade of amber. It was time to do a little baking.
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.