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.
The Thanksgiving Table
Today is a different kind of day. Usually posts on this blog come about with the narrative and I manage to squeeze in a recipe. But sometimes when you really stumble upon a winning recipe, it speaks for itself. We'll likely make these beans for Thanksgiving this year. They're one of those simple stunners that you initially think couldn't be much of a thing. And then they come out of the oven all sweet and withered and flecked with herbs. You try one and you realize they are, in fact, a pretty big thing.
I always force myself to wait until after Halloween to start thinking much about holiday pies or, really, future holidays in general. But this year I cheated a bit, tempted heavily by the lure of a warmly-spiced sweet potato pie that I used to make back when I baked pies for a living in the Bay Area (way back when). We seem to always have sweet potatoes around as they're one of Oliver's favorite foods, and when I roast them for his lunch I've been wishing I could turn them into a silky pie instead. So the other day I reserved part of the sweet potatoes for me. For a pie that I've made hundreds of times in the past, this time reimagined with fragrant brown butter, sweetened solely with maple syrup, and baked into a flaky kamut crust. We haven't started talking about the Thanksgiving menu yet this year, but I know one thing for sure: this sweet potato pie will make an appearance.
It has begun. Talk of who is bringing what, where we'll buy the turkey, what kind of pies I'll make, early morning texts concerning brussels sprouts. There's no getting around it: Thanksgiving is on its way. And with it comes the inevitable reflecting back and thinking about what we're thankful for. And about traditions. The funny thing about traditions is that they exist because they've been around for a long time. Year after year after year. But then, one Thanksgiving maybe there's something new at the table.
I didn't expect green beans to bring up such a great discussion on traditions, sharing of poems and how a piece of writing can linger with you. So thank you for that. Your comments pointed out how important people and place are and how food takes the back seat when it comes right down to it. Even if you feel quite warm towards Thanksgiving and are looking forward to next week, reading about recipe suggestions and meal planning online and in magazines can start to feel tiresome right about now. Why? Because I suppose when it all comes down to it, in the big picture it doesn't matter what we all serve anyway. Next year, you likely won't remember one year's vegetable side dish from another. What you'll remember are the markers that dotted the year for you: whom you sat next to at the table, a toast or grace, and the sense of gratitude you felt for something -- large or small.
I got a text from my mom the other day that read: demerara sugar? I responded back with a question mark, not sure what she was referencing. It turns out she was experimenting with a new pie recipe that called for the natural sugar and wasn't sure why she couldn't just use white sugar as that's what she's always done in the past. A few days later we talked on the phone and she mentioned she'd let me take charge of the salad for Thanksgiving this year as long as there was no kale. No kale! And I wanted to do the mashed potatoes? Would they still be made with butter and milk? In short, we're always willing to mix things up in the Gordon household. Whether it's inspiration from a food magazine, friend or coworker, either my mom or one of my sisters will often have an idea for something new to try at the holiday table. But what I've slowly learned is that it can't really be that different: there must be pumpkin pie, the can of cranberry sauce is necessary even though not many people actually eat it, the onion casserole is non-negotiable, the salad can't be too out there, and the potatoes must be made with ample butter and milk. And while I was really scheming up an epic kale salad to make this year, there's a big part of me that gets it, too: if we change things too much we won't recognize the part of the day that comes to mean so much: the pure recognition. We take comfort in traditions because we recognize them -- because they're always there, year after year. And so today I present to you (mom, are you reading?): this year's Gordon family Thanksgiving salad.