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.
It turns out that returning from a sunny honeymoon to a rather rainy, dark stretch of Seattle fall hasn't been the easiest transition. Sam and I have been struggling a little to find our groove with work projects and even simple routines like cooking meals for one another and getting out of the easy daily ruts that can happen to us all. When we were traveling, we made some new vows to each other -- ways we can keep the fall and winter from feeling a bit gloomy, as tends to happen at a certain point living in the Pacific Northwest (for me, at least): from weekly wine tastings at our neighborhood wine shop to going on more lake walks. And I suppose that's one of the most energizing and invigorating parts about travel, isn't it? The opposite of the daily rut: the constant newness and discovery around every corner. One of my favorite small moments in Italy took place at a cafe in Naples when I accidentally ordered the wrong pastry and, instead, was brought this funny looking cousin of a croissant. We had a wonderfully sunny little table with strong cappuccino, and, disappointed by my lack of ordering prowess, I tried the ugly pastry only to discover my new favorite treat of all time (and the only one I can't pronounce): the sfogliatelle. I couldn't stop talking about this pastry, its thick flaky layers wrapped around a light, citrus-flecked sweet ricotta filling. It was like nothing I'd ever tried -- the perfect marriage of interesting textures and flavors. I became a woman obsessed. I began to see them displayed on every street corner; I researched their origin back at the hotel room, and started to look up recipes for how to recreate them at home. And the reason for the fascination was obviously that they were delicious. But even more: I'm so immersed in the food writing world that I rarely get a chance to discover a dish or a restaurant on my own without hearing tell of it first. And while a long way away from that Italian cafe, I had a similar feeling this week as I scanned the pages of Alice Medrich's new book, Flavor Flours, and baked up a loaf of her beautiful fall pumpkin loaf: Discovery, newness, delight!
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.
This time last week I was up in the Skagit River Valley sitting in the early fall sun eating wood-fired bagels and chatting with farmers, millers and bakers at the Kneading Conference West. I made homemade soba noodles, learned the ins and outs of sourdough starters, and sat in on a session where we tasted crackers baked with single varietal wheats. It was like wine tasting, but with wheat and the whole time I kept pinching myself, thinking: THESE ARE MY PEOPLE! I don't get the opportunity to be a student much these days -- usually on the other side of things teaching cooking classes or educating people at the farmers markets about whole grains and natural sugars. So to just sit and listen with a fresh (red!) notebook and a new pen was surprisingly refreshing. I miss it already. Thankfully, this cookie recipe has come back as a memorable souvenir, and one that is sure to be in high rotation in our house in the coming months.
Strolling New York City streets during the height of fall when all the leaves are changing and golden light glints off the brownstone windows. This is what I envisioned when I bought tickets to attend my cousin's September wedding earlier this month: Sam and I would extend the trip for a good day or two so we could experience a little bit of fall in the city. We'd finally eat at Prune and have scones and coffee at Buvette, as we always do. Sam wanted to take me to Russ and Daughters, and we'd try to sneak in a new bakery or ice cream shop for good measure. Well, as some of you likely know, my thinking on the weather was premature. New York City fall had yet to descend and, instead, we ambled around the city in a mix of humidity and rain. When we returned home I found myself excited about the crisp evening air, and the fact that the tree across the street had turned a rusty shade of amber. It was time to do a little baking.
I am writing this on Saturday afternoon on a day when we had big plans to conquer pre-baby chore lists, but Sam's not feeling great and my energy's a little low so it hasn't been quite what we'd envisioned. My goals for the morning were to repot a house plant and make some soup and I've done neither. I will say that the sweet potato and fennel are still sitting on the counter eagerly awaiting their Big Moment -- it just hasn't come about quite yet. Sam and I were both going to attempt to install the carseat, but it started to look really daunting so we abandoned ship; it's now sitting proudly in the basement, also eagerly awaiting its Big Moment. So it's been one of those weekends -- the kind you look back on and wonder what it is you actually accomplished. At the very least, I get the chance to tell you about this hearty cranberry cornbread. I know maybe it feels premature in the season for cranberry recipes, but hang with me here: slathered with a little soft butter and runny honey, there's nothing I'd rather eat right now on the cool, crisp Seattle mornings we've been having lately.