I had a different kind of post planned for today. I’d wanted to talk to you about measuring your own success and how the markers of success can be tricky. I can imagine that post, and I think you would’ve liked it. Heck, maybe I’ll still write it. But this afternoon I worked the farmers market and witnessed a few things too good not to mention. The Marge Granola booth sits right next to a woman who sells beautiful flowers. In my weeks working next to her, I’ve learned a lot. I know that red dahlias are the most popular. I also know that they last four days. I know what wild amaranth looks like in all its fluffy stalkiness, and I can pick out the best lily in a bunch. I’m often gifted a few stems at the end of the day, and have so loved placing them all around the house. Each week a new color.
The woman who runs the flower booth has a young nephew that comes with her to help each week: sweeping up leaves, making bouquets and taking customer’s money. He can’t be more than ten or eleven, is an incredibly hard worker, and has warm, smiling brown eyes. He recently got new shoes and I watched as he polished them up throughout the afternoon, his aunt giving him a hard time while chuckling: Relax with the shoes. She turned to me, and whispered, “His two loves? New shoes and chicken.” When it slowed down a bit later in the day, I asked him what kind of chicken he likes the best and his face lit up. A once quiet shy kid, quite suddenly, couldn’t keep quiet.
The same afternoon, a young boy walked up to the granola table and asked what he could buy for $1. I apologized and explained that we don’t have anything to sell for $1. Head down, he moseyed on over to the flower table and asked the same question. The woman said that most of the single stems were $1 — with the exception of larger flowers. His face lit up. He scanned all of his options, and ultimately walked away with a stalk of purple wildflowers, clutching them tightly. Proudly.
Towards the end of the day as I was starting to pack up, a handsome, older African-American man walked by pushing an elderly woman in a wheelchair. He stopped and said he had a question about my granola ingredients: How exactly did I get the sunflower seeds to use in the granola? I explained that we have a distributor who delivers them, that I don’t actually harvest them myself. He seemed confused by my response — pointing to the sunflower display to my right and reiterating his question:
“How do you get the seeds from those flowers to use in your granola cereal?”
I answered, “Oh, you don’t. Or we don’t, anyway. That would be very labor intensive.”
“Well then, what are they for in that case?” he gestured towards the summery stalks.
“They’re for decoration. People put them in a vase in their house,” I assured him.
He seemed utterly stumped, continuing to look back and forth from my granola to the sunflowers.”Why?”
“Why? Because they’re pretty,” I said. “They’re just pretty. That’s all.”
A broad, slow smile swept across his face revealing a few gappy gold teeth. He looked up at me and repeated slowly, “Right. They’re just pretty. And that’s all.”
I’ve always said that I love baking because it makes people happy — it makes people smile. But let me tell you something: bakers have nothing on flowers. That table to my right sees a lot of joy, and now that I’ve started to pay attention, it’s one of my favorite parts about working Friday evenings. There are young boys with new shoes, pre-teens clutching wild flowers, big gappy-tooth grins and realizations about the importance of beauty for beauty’s sake. A bag of granola can’t complete with that.
Now how does ice cream relate to any of this? Well I might make the case, as I have to anyone who knows me well, that ice cream needs no case, really. But early last week I decided to make ice cream for dinner for no good reason other than the fact that the house was stuffy, neither of us were too terribly hungry, and I had fresh figs that I needed to use. I’d seen a recipe for Fresh Fig and Chocolate Chunk Ice Cream in Martha Stewart magazine last month, and as I was laying out the ingredients I remembered the wonderful flavor combination of fig and fennel in one of favorite Theo chocolate bars. So out came the fennel seeds and this ice cream quickly became fennel-kissed and oh-so-delightful.
There are many fennel ice cream recipes floating around online; those recipes generally call for infusing the fennel seeds in the warm milk for at least 30 minutes. My version boasts a subtle whisper of fennel so as not to compete with the sweet, earthy figs or smooth dark chocolate. I warm the milk and cream with the fennel and then let it steep for almost ten minutes and that seems to do the trick just fine. The directions ask that you freeze the ice cream for 2-3 hours before serving, but there are some nights when you don’t want to wait that long. So you eat it soft, by the spoonful, right out of the container For no other reason than it’s summer and it tastes delicious.
You can make the base for this recipe up to two days ahead of churning the ice cream. And next time I make it, I just might fold in some sliced almonds or chopped hazelnuts at the very end.
Adapted from: Martha Stewart
For the Mix-Ins:
Combine milk, cream and fennel seeds in a medium saucepan. Bring mixture to a simmer over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally; remove from heat. Stir in the vanilla extract. Let mixture sit off the heat for 10 minutes. Strain.
In a large bowl, whisk together egg yolks, sugar, and salt. Gradually whisk in half of the milk mixture. Pour egg-milk mixture back into the pan along with remaining warm strained milk and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon, 6-8 minutes or so.
Prepare an ice bath in a bowl large enough to hold another bowl comfortably. Strain custard through a fine sieve into a bowl set into the ice bath. Place in refrigerator and let cool for at least 1 hour, or until quite cold. Meanwhile, chill a loaf pan in the freezer.
When ready to churn the ice cream: sprinkle figs with sugar and toss to coat. Let stand until juicy, about 5 minutes. Fold figs and chocolate bits into custard base with a rubber spatula. Freeze and churn in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Transfer to the cold pan. Cover with plastic wrap and freeze until hardened, 2-3 hours.
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.