Lunch has been on my mind lately, mainly because I haven’t been doing it right. I’ve recently hired a new employee in the bakery who is catching on quickly and brings real lunches for herself each day — taking a good, dedicated break to enjoy them. This amazes me. When I’m working in the Marge Granola kitchen, I’ll often forget to eat or have a handful of granola or a cup of yogurt at best; the day usually gets away from me and to take the time to sit and have a meal just means, ultimately, a longer work day. But when I come home I find myself drained of energy and not that productive or inspired to do much in the evening. So I’ve been trying to be more mindful of packing hearty snacks to eat throughout the day. Then a few weeks ago, after hearing good things from many friends, I ordered Peter Miller’s new book, Lunch at the Shop, and am starting to look at the midday meal in a whole new light.
Peter Miller’s charming book, Lunch at the Shop is, in many ways, a manifesto to the midday meal that so many of us often neglect for lack of time or the very real hustle and bustle of the average workday. Miller owns a bookshop in the Pike Place Market here in Seattle and everyday he and his small staff make lunch for one another in their back staff room. They don’t have an oven or range, but they manage to pull together seasonal lunches regardless of the amount of work or level of stress any given day may bring. They’ve deemed it important — and that shines through in this book. Here, lunch is the center of the day: “It is the separation between the front of the day and the back, a narrow strip between stretches of work. Talking and sitting with others allow us to leave the pencil, or the laptop, or the phone and enjoy the break. We can get back to the work in a few minutes, revived…the job is not complex, and it is not clever. You are simply taking a part of the day back into your own hands, making it personal and a pleasure.”
In his introduction, Miller notes: “Some of cooking is using what you love. And some of cooking is using what you have left. Lunch is about both.” I think if we all focused a bit more on the latter — on using what we have left — a decent lunch might happen more often. Preparing ingredients in advance (washing greens, chopping herbs, slicing cheese, boiling eggs) or cooking a few things ahead (cooking up a pot of grains on Sunday) will ensure throwing something together in the morning — or midday– is more of a reality. With that in mind, the key to elevating lunch, I think, is having a few basics on hand and knowing that it doesn’t have to be complicated or time consuming. Miller notes that the staff at the shop generally tries to stock up on olives, parsley and lemons, pickles and fruit and cheese to dress up meals. In our house, we also keep parsley around but also make sure we have eggs, tuna, tortillas and greens and usually a quick meal isn’t too far off. And of course supplementing with other store-bought, prepared things that you love is always a good idea — Miller describes the hummus at Mamnoon and how they like to keep that around for quick meals. We often buy a little smoked salmon at the Ballard farmers market and work around that for the week in scrambles, wraps and salads.
Many of the lunches at the bookshop are simple open-faced sandwiches or a salad made with local greens, salty cheese and a boiled egg. They don’t require a cookbook or an internet search. There are lentils (a few different ways!), seasonal sandwiches, thoughtful salads and soups. The aim and goal isn’t about perfection or about whose meal is the tastiest — it’s simply about doing it, each day. After all, the more we all strive for lunchtime perfection (or perfection in any regard), I think the less we’re actually inclined to make the meal. And that’s part of my problem at work: Sam and I make great work-at-home lunches when I’m at the house, but if I’m out at the bakery I often feel like I just can’t be bothered and I’d rather wait until I’m back at home. But big vegetable-heavy salads like this one will help — they’re something that can be made ahead and refrigerated for a few days. Easily portable and much more nourishing than a handful of granola while standing and shipping Fedex boxes.
So yesterday I made this spring quinoa salad using the colorful vegetables we had on hand, leftover quinoa from a big pot I’d cooked up a few days ago and a bunch of fresh chives I picked up from my farmers market neighbors. I made a quick lemony dressing and crumbled in a bit of cheese. I think Peter Miller’s staff would approve — this is a simple lunch at its best. It won’t take you long to prepare, you can do so the night before, and yet it’s thoughtful and satisfying and will make you feel happier than if you grab a pre-made sandwich on your way into the office (or at least it would for me). I’m excited to share the recipe with you today because I think it’s one that you can make your own with ingredients you have on hand (see my suggestions in the headnote). It has a refreshing brightness from the lemon, and the handful of fresh herbs make it feel decidedly different from the winter fare (cabbage! kale!) we’ve been living on for what feels like forever.
Note: Inspired by Peter’s book, I’m going to make an effort to share some of the quick work-at-home lunches that Sam and I often make for one another. He makes an epic tuna salad that we both love that I’ll share with you in the next few weeks — in perfect time for sunny stoop lunches or outdoor picnics.
To make this salad your own, feel free to use any cooked grain you’d like (a hearty grain like farro or wheat berries would be great as would a more delicate grain like millet). Then simply add 1 1/4 cups chopped fresh herbs of your choosing (mint, basil, chives, parsley, cilantro — anything goes) along with 3 cups of your favorite cooked spring vegetables. Cloak it all in this easy lemony dressing and you’ve got your own version of this simple lunch salad.
For the salad:
For the dressing:
Prepare an ice water bath in a large bowl. Bring a medium saucepan of salted water to a boil. Add the asparagus and cook for about 2 – 2 1/2 minutes, or until just barely tender (it will continue to cook just a bit out of the water). Drain and quickly to ice water bath to stop the cooking. Drain again then towel dry and slice into 2-3 inch pieces.
To make the dressing, simply whisk together all ingredients in a small bowl. Add a few grinds of fresh pepper and set aside.
In a large salad bowl, combine cooked quinoa, asparagus, radishes, and herbs. Toss with dressing. Season with additional salt and pepper as needed. Fold in goat cheese and serve. Refrigerate any leftovers for up to 3 days.
On Monday our little family of three is headed to the airport at 6 am to board our first with-baby cross-country trip. We'll be visiting Sam's family in New Jersey for a few days, then renting a car and driving over to meet up with my family at my mom's lake house in the Adirondacks. Sam's younger sister and her kids have yet to meet Oliver; my grandpa has yet to meet him, and Oliver has yet to take a dunk in a lake, see a firefly, or spend quality time with energetic dogs -- of which there will be three. A lot of firsts. This week my family has been madly texting, volunteering to make certain meals or sweets on assigned days while we're at the cabin and it got me thinking about really simple, effortless summer desserts -- in particular, ones that you can make while staying in a house with an unfamiliar kitchen and unfamiliar equipment and still do a pretty bang-up job. I think fruit crisp is just that thing.
In a few short weeks, we're headed to New York, Vermont and New Jersey to visit family and see my sister Zoe get married. In starting to think through the trip and do a little planning, I found Oliver the cutest tiny-person dress shoes I've ever seen (and he's quite smitten with them), sussed out childcare options for the night of the wedding, and found what feels like the most expensive (and last) rental car in the state of New Jersey. I try very hard not to be one of Those People that begins lamenting the loss of a season before it's remotely appropriate to do so, but this year, as we'll be gone much of September, I've felt a bit of a 'hurry, make all the summery things!' feeling set in. So we've been managing increasingly busy days punctuated with zucchini noodle salads, gazpacho, corn on the cob and homemade popsicles (preferably eaten shirtless outside followed by a good, solid sprinkler run for one small person in particular. Not naming any names).
Somehow, in what seems to have been a blink of an eye, we have a six month old baby. In some ways I can't remember a time we didn't have an Oliver, and in other ways it's all a blur broken up by a few holidays (a Thanksgiving thanks to grocery store takeout, and our very first Christmas in Seattle), a few family visits, a one-day road trip to Portland, a birthday dinner out, a birthday cake, weekend drives to nowhere in particular, swimming at the pool with Oliver, weekly get-togethers with our parent's group, doctor's visits, hundreds of walks around the neighborhood, hundreds of cups of coffee, dozens (or more?) of scoops of ice cream. Most of the worrying about keeping a baby alive has made way for other concerns, and Oliver's need for constant stimulation or soothing walks and car rides has been traded for stretches of time playing with a new toy or checking out his surroundings. In truth, it's thanks to that tiny bit of baby independence that this humble, summery cake came to be in the first place. So we've all got an Oliver to thank for that. Or, really, we have a Yossi Arefi to thank, as it's from her beautiful new cookbook that I've bookmarked heavily and am eager to continue exploring.
A triple berry summer crisp made with oats, quinoa flakes and hazelnuts. Summer in a skillet.
I had a weak moment on our honeymoon in Italy when I decided that I should be making gelato for a living. My enthusiasm for Italian gelato wasn't surprising to anyone. I'd done extensive research, made lists, had Sam map out cities in terms of where the best gelaterias were. I took notes and photos and hemmed and hawed over flavor choices: Sicilian Pistachio! Chestnut Honey! Sweet Cheese, Almond and Fig! In truth, on that particular trip, I cared far more about treats, sunshine, and cobblestone walks than I cared about famous landmarks or tourist attractions, often leaving the camera back at the hotel in favor of my small black notebook which housed detailed jottings on dessert discoveries in each city we visited. Our friends Matteo and Jessica happened to be in Naples on the one night we were there, and we all went out for pizza together followed by a long stroll around the city. At some point the conversation turned to gelato (as it's bound to) and Matteo brought up the famous school in Bologna where many renowned gelato artisans study. My wheels were spinning. Maybe we should visit Bologna. I should see this school! I should talk to these students! I could make Sicilian Pistachio; Chestnut Honey; and Sweet Cheese, Almond and Fig each and every day of our lives. Or at the very least, travel to Bologna to learn how and then come back to Seattle to take our Northwest city by storm. Well here we are six months later, back to reality, and the impetus to pack up my bags and head for Bologna has subsided for the time being ... but not the unwavering gusto to sample. That part will always be with me. It's been awhile since I mixed up a batch of ice cream at home, but the other day a beautiful new cookbook landed on my doorstep and I flipped right to a recipe for dark chocolate sorbet with toasty, salty almonds. I didn't need much convincing.