Last week on an oh-so-early Monday morning we climbed into the car and headed to the airport to catch a plane for Palm Springs, California. Around this time of year in Seattle we all start really craving sunshine and last year I promised myself that a break was in order, so after the holidays we just scheduled it and put aside all the questions about work and if it was even possible to leave for four whole days– and just left. Now I’ll be the first to admit that it took me a while to get into the groove of vacation and to not be sneaking in emails and worrying about business contracts and granola orders. But on Day 3 a funny thing happened: I started to feel as if I’d just finished a really good yoga class … but that feeling lasted all day long. Hello, vacation! How I missed you.
An unusually large concentration of our friends have visited Palm Springs this year and I was a little skeptical that it would feel overly fancy (think tight white pants and metallic sandals) but it was actually quite the opposite — or at least our experience was. We stayed at the Ace Hotel and had a room with a little patio that was perfect for early morning coffee drinking and late night star gazing. There were a lot of young families and it was surprisingly mellow. Our days were filled with lots of reading and strolling, some riding into town on bikes and sharing milkshakes. There may have been an 11 a.m. Negroni at some point which I was pretty delighted by.
The photo above and below were taken on our jaunt to Joshua Tree, where we spent a day ambling about rocks and dusty trails filled with other-worldy cactus, Joshua trees and windy vistas. On our drive home we stopped at Shield’s Date Garden where I snatched up a jar of date butter and some blonde dates which are, apparently, a variety that Shields cultivated themselves. While there, we shared a date shake and sampled just about every date known to man.
Beyond Joshua Tree and biking into town, we largely stayed by the pool and read — with breaks to wander to King’s Highway, the hotel restaurant, for a meal (two words: kale salad!). I realized about halfway into the trip that one of the things I loved about Palm Springs is there’s not a whole lot to cram in and do or see. Often when I travel I feel a bit of urgency to get to the newest restaurant or see the sights that friends have talked about — that ‘you must see this before you come home’ scenario. And that type of travel often feels rushed and frenetic and not all that restful, really. But in Palm Springs that doesn’t seem to exist. To be honest, we found most of the food in town to be underwhelming and were perfectly content sitting outside and reading and napping for a large part of the day.
I’d planned on trying to recreate the date butter we bought at Shield’s for this post but I’m sorry to say that TSA took it from my carry-on bag. I felt I made a serious case for the fact that it wasn’t a liquid — it was just solid dates that had been smashed up, but alas Sam whisked me off and pleaded with me to stop making my serious case. Apparently I’d become pretty attached to the idea of that date butter (since then, Sam has ordered some for us online to try so I’ll report back!). Instead, today I’m sharing with you a recipe for Date Walnut Breakfast Bars from Jennifer Katzinger’s beautiful new book, Honey and Oats.
This book was waiting for me in a big stack of mail when we got home and instead of unpacking or showering or doing any number of things that made more sense, I dug right in. Honey and Oats reflects the way that I bake at home — with whole grain flours and natural sugars. In truth, I’d been flirting with the idea of a second cookbook that would focus more on natural sugars and low and behold, Jennifer has beat me to it! But I’m so glad she did; if you are excited about the way that whole grain flours change the flavor of a recipe, you should get excited about this cookbook for the way that natural sugars can do the very same. There’s so much good here.
I’ll surely write about another recipe from this book this season (so many bookmarked!) but because I had these beautiful new blonde dates and very little in the way of groceries at home, I decided breakfast bars were in order. Now the bars in Jennifer’s book are called Date Bars and they’re poised as more of a dessert but in truth, I think because they’re so low in sugar and have such a soft, crumbly crust that they’re really great for breakfast. I added ground walnuts to the crust which is already packed with oats and a little coconut sugar — I also added a touch more salt and on the next go around, I think I’d fold in some sesame seeds or flax seeds for a little crunch.
A note on coconut sugar: I’ve been experimenting with this natural sugar more and more at home. It looks a lot like brown sugar and tastes much less sweet than granulated white sugar. Made from the flower buds of the coconut palm, it’s becoming more popular among natural sweeteners because of its darker flavor profile and beneficial nutrients including a handful of vitamins and minerals. You can find it at many health food stores, but if you’d rather not make the trip you can use your favorite natural sweetener here instead (natural cane sugar like turbinado would be great).
When I make these again, I think I’ll put the date mixture into the food processor and smooth it out a bit — it has a rustic texture which in many ways is perfect for the crumbly crust and topping but I can’t help but wonder what it would be like with a more uniform filling. For the record, Sam likes them just as they are.
Slightly adapted from: Honey and Oats
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Lightly grease a 13 x 9 inch baking pan.
In a medium saucepan, simmer the dates in the water for about 30 minutes, stirring frequently and mushing them down as you go. Continue until a thick paste has formed; avoid letting the mixture boil or burn.
Meanwhile, lay the walnuts out on a small baking sheet and toast for about 8 minutes, or until fragrant. Set aside to cool. Once cool to the touch, pulse in a food processor until coarse and crumbly.
In a large bowl, combine the flour, salt, baking soda, oats, ground walnuts, and coconut palm sugar. With a pastry cutter or your fingers, cut the butter into the dry mixture until crumbly. Add 2-3 tablespoons cold water and mix lightly until larger clumps begin to form.
Press 3/4 of the dough into the prepared pan. Spread the date mixture on top. Cover with the remaining dough and pat it down lightly. Bake until the top is lightly browned, about 35-40 minutes. Let cool for 1 hour before cutting into slices (I prefer 2-inch square slices but 1-by-3 inch rectangles are nice, too). While I do think these bars are best enjoyed the day they’re made, feel free to cover leftovers and store at room temperature 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.