Last weekend I flew home to California to do a number of book events for Whole-Grain Mornings. I’ve done readings and classes here in Seattle but had yet to travel to promote the book, and it was such a treat to do so in my old stomping grounds. Sam took the train down to meet me and we stayed at my mom’s house just North of San Francisco. She threw a wonderful book party on Friday night and despite the torrential (!!) downpours, many old friends and colleagues came to join us along with a large handful of my mom’s friends and neighbors. There was Prosecco and lots of cheese and a few hours to really get to mark the completion of the cookbook. When everyone left, Sam and I took off our shoes, did the dishes and sat at the kitchen counter eating leftover olives and Jeni’s ice cream straight from the container (not sure I can vouch for this pairing for future reference). It turns out that funny mix of exhilaration and excitement but utter fatigue had hit — and it stuck around that weekend.
While in the Bay Area I did a variety of events, from cooking classes to book signings and a little shindig at Anthropologie. And can I just say that I have loved meeting you all — those who I’ve gotten to meet — and talk with you about the recipes you’re making and about how you’re using the book at home? Writing a cookbook is a funny, solitary thing. For me, there was a lot of early morning or late night recipe testing and research, pacing, mad note-taking all over the house, and breakfast for lunch and dinner for months. It’s insular work and can be a bit (or a lot) lonely, so to get out of my kitchen and into the world with the book and share it with you all has been the highlight of the entire process for me.
And I learned a little lesson while in San Francisco doing events. I had a policy of just saying “YES” to any book opportunity that came my way, but I got pretty tired last weekend moving from one to the next (sometimes with three in one day) with not enough time for a proper meal or a sit-down-and-chill-out-for-a-second. So I’ve started to look at my calendar more realistically now and am structuring my days in a more spacious way. Also: I have decided there must be more snacks. There were not enough snacks in San Francisco. In keeping that in mind, I whipped up these Citrus-Spiked Muesli Bars a few days ago and plan to take a batch on the road with me to Portland this weekend (Portlanders, I’d love to meet you! More information below).
We are in love with these bars around here. They could really be called Lazy Man’s Granola Bars instead of muesli bars and Sam kept asking what makes them a muesli bar versus a granola bar — which is a really fair question. In truth, you could call them either. We’ve been making a new Triple-Grain Muesli for Marge Granola so I’ve been eating it non-stop lately and when I set out to make these, I wanted to throw them together quickly instead of measuring and weighing out a number of dry ingredients for them for you here. So calling for 3 cups of muesli is an easy way to say, essentially, you want to use 3 cups of your favorite rolled grains, nuts and seeds for these.
Muesli is a German word meaning “mixture” and I think that’s useful to keep in mind when thinking about mixing up your own batch. I created a Hazelnut Cherry Muesli a few years ago for The Kitchn, and last year wrote about a Fruit and Nut Muesli that we eat a lot (and that inspired the brand new Marge Muesli that just went on sale last week). Traditional bircher-style muesli is unbaked, but many people are toasting their muesli these days with a little bit of honey or sweetener and perhaps just a touch of oil or butter — or nothing at all. I have a Toasted Mango and Coconut Muesli in my cookbook that I love for it’s downright tropical nature and subtle kiss of sweetness — perfect for these gray winter days. But there’s a special place in my heart for clean, traditional unbaked muesli. It’s good morning energy food, and I love to soak mine in almond milk or runny yogurt for a few hours (or up to overnight) and doctor it up with a tiny bit of jam or honey. So the gist here: when it comes to muesli, do what makes you happy. Toast it or don’t. Add your favorite nuts and seeds. Maybe a few dried cranberries, cherries, blueberries or raisins. Put it in a pretty jar. It’ll make things good this week; I promise.
So really, the brunt of your dry ingredients for these bars is muesli. You can mix up your own batch or buy a bag at the store. Beyond that, I added sesame seeds and a few spoonfuls of millet for extra crunch. These are really optional (although delicious if they’re easy for you to get your hands on). The muesli in this recipe is lightly sweetened and bound with a mixture of dates, almond butter, maple syrup and orange juice — and a little orange zest and vanilla extract are folded in at the end. The citrus flavor is truly sunny in these — you’ll notice it right away but it’s not at all overpowering. It’s just enough to remind you that spring’s slowly, but surely, on its way.
I’ll be in Portland, OR this weekend to promote Whole-Grain Mornings. If you’re in the city (or close it it), I’d love to meet you! You can find me at the following spots (or learn more on the book website).
PORTLAND BOOK TOUR: THIS WEEKEND!
Saturday 2/22/14: 10-11:30 am – Pages to Plate, The Cakery at Baker and Spice (this event is a great deal! $20 includes the cost of the book, granola demo, snacks and coffee).
Sunday 2/23/14: 3-6 pm – Cooking class at Tabor Bread (I’m so excited about this class, a collaboration with Bee Local Honey, Strauss Creamery and the amazing folks at Tabor Bread. $30 includes cooking demo, snacks, samples, take home treats and a discussion on whole grain flours and local honey. Join us; $30!)
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Preheat the oven to 325 F. Lightly butter an 8-inch square baking pan and set aside.
Process dates in a food processor until they begin to gather together in a ball, about 1 minute.
In a small heavy-bottom pan on the stovetop, warm the maple syrup, almond butter and orange juice over medium heat. Whisk well so the almond butter fully incorporates into the maple mixture. Slowly pour into the bowl of the food processor, add the vanilla extract, and process for another minute or so, or until the dates loosen into the warm maple mixture (should look like a really thick nut butter at this point).
In a medium bowl, whisk together your muesli, sesame seeds, cinnamon, and salt. Scrape date mixture into the bowl of muesli along with the orange zest and flax or millet and stir until all the grains and nuts are coated (while it gets a little messy, I use my hands at this point). Try to work relatively quickly so as not to let the mixture cool too much.
Turn the mixture out into the prepared pan and press firmly so it covers the surface evenly. I use the back of a spatula here to help. Bake for 25-28 minutes (see note below), or until the edges of the bars are just turning slightly brown. Let cool for at least 30 minutes, and ideally 1 hour, to allow bars to fully set. Slice into bars the size of your choosing and serve room temperature. Cover and store leftovers at room temperature for up to one week.
A quick note on baking the bars: It can be difficult to tell when the bars are done. Don’t wait until they’re uniformly golden or dark brown on the top, or until they’re completely dry or firm to the touch. They will be perfect if they’re just turning lightly brown around the edges but should still give way to your touch in the center — much like cookies when they come out of the oven, the bars will firm up as they cool. Don’t be tempted to cut corners and slice them before they’re cool, however, or they won’t hold together well for you. Give them at least 30 minutes and preferably 1 hour to cool and set completely. Enjoy!
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.