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.
Early Fall Baking
Last weekend we went apple picking up near Yakima, a good three hours east of Seattle. We drove over to Harmony Orchards with our friends Brandi and John and met up with many other groups and families to amble about the rows and rows of apples in the unusually warm sun. We missed the annual picking last year as we were on our honeymoon, but the previous year was the one in which we made the colossal mistake of picking over 70 pounds of apples. I've never made so much applesauce in my life. This year we practiced restraint in bringing home a cool 38 pounds and after getting them all situated in the basement, I started to leaf through a few cookbooks looking for a great apple recipe -- something, preferably, that used quite a few apples, wasn't too sweet and could double as breakfast or dessert (really, the best kind of recipe). And that's exactly what we have in these Custardy Apple Squares.
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 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.
I rarely make muffins at home and never order one when I'm out and about as I find they're often far too sweet and never truly that satisfying. I realize, too, in looking back at my cookbook that there's only one muffin recipe throughout. Case in point: I'm tentative on muffins. But not these. We've been pretty thrilled to have this healthier version of Morning Glory muffins on the counter this week; they have little bits of apple, raisins, walnuts, and grated carrot and are cloaked in a buttery oat crumble topping -- quite the opposite of your boring coffeeshop fare. I thought long and hard about doing a Valentine's post, some festive cookie or confection that would be share-worthy this weekend, but the more we talked about what our weekend would really look like, it involved something special for breakfast instead. I don't remember the last time a Valentine's Day fell on a Saturday, so we have big plans to have breakfast in bed and if your plans are even remotely similar, these muffins would be a fine inclusion.
I generally work on weekends. It's something I've come to terms with only because I know it won't last forever. I write. I bake. But those two things don't always pay the bills, so I work retail on the weekends and dream of the day when I'll have a Sunday like this one: