January is a month of contradictions, from the highs of New Years Eve and the momentum of fresh starts and cleaner closets to the reality of dark winter days filled with putting away holiday decorations and getting tax paperwork ready. There’s a noticeable lack of sugary cookies and far fewer twinkling lights. And during this month, I always find that my cooking becomes much more basic and stripped down, not for any of the more popular reasons (diets and cleanses), but more because I often look to our pantry to start really using up what we have on hand and trying to find vegetables that I’m inspired by at the farmers market. Lately we’ve been cooking up crisp fennel to add to wild rice or grain dishes, sautéing lots of mushrooms, and roasting potatoes. We’ve got red cabbage in the refrigerator and slice it thinly to make fish tacos once or twice a week, and hearty greens are always in heavy rotation. It’s not as colorful as spring and summer produce, and sometimes it feels much more dutiful, but that’s January for you: a month of pokes and prods to keep on your toes in the kitchen. Or, alternatively, to just sit down — which is really nice, too. This recipe combines both of those sentiments: it uses a wonderful grain you may not be familiar with, but beyond that it’s a very simple and satisfying recipe that won’t take much time out of your short day and will leave you feel energized and ready to look ahead.
For me, January is also a time to think about the upcoming year as a whole, not just in the kitchen. Each New Year’s Day, Sam and I go to The Wandering Goose, one of our favorite cafes in town and sit down over biscuits and coffee to talk about what we’d like to focus on, accomplish or dream about. We don’t call these resolutions — they’re more like a list of what excites us when we look ahead. I didn’t realize that Sam had kept last year’s list in the same book, so when we finished talking about 2015, he flipped back and we went through our hopes last year to see what we accomplished and compared how similar or different our sentiments were. The differences between what I hoped for last year and what I hope for this year were remarkably different.
This year, a few of the things on my list involve: trying to buy our first house, learning to sew clothing and get better at sewing quilts, getting better at baking bread, traveling to New Orleans for the first time, growing my first tomato, reading more, hiking more. Last year, my list looked much more like: gain 20 new vendors for Marge, work on new organic certifications for Marge, research doing food and gift shows, work on new seasonal gift sets, set up a granola subscription service. Apparently this year I’m ready to not focus solely on work. That feeling of work fatigue has certainly come before, but it’s often met with guilt and anxiety as I tend to be someone who isn’t great at letting go of the reigns (Sam calls me his little do-er). But something’s changed this year: there’s actually no guilt, and immense satisfaction when I spend a weekend afternoon on the couch reading or walking with a friend around the lake instead of focusing on work tasks. I’ve even been taking shorter work days to try to go to a favorite exercise class or make something more interesting for dinner. 2015, I like you already.
Something slow and steady happens when you find yourself focusing solely on work and letting other things slide away that make you really happy — I think you often don’t realize they’re gone until you look around and think about how long it’s been since you’ve seen a few of your dear friends, or how many weeks (and weeks … and weeks) have passed before you actually finish a book. So I’m not going to let that happen this year. I’m hoping to see more people, read more books, close the computer more. The question of how to balance work and having a family often comes up in the media these days, especially for working moms. While that’s an entirely different blog post, I will say that I really do feel the same tugs and questions when trying to balance work and simply … having a life. I suppose these are the restraints of owning your own small business, but I’m resolving (yes, resolving!) to strive a little less fiercely with it this year. And strive more for sunset walks like the one below taken a few days ago while catching up with a friend.
So now let’s talk about food to sustain us through this long month: freekeh (free-kah). If this grain is new to you, freekah is young (still green) wheat that’s harvested, then dried out in the sun and roasted. It’s nubby and looks much like bulgur wheat in appearance, but has a really earthy, nutty flavor and a delightful chewy texture. You can buy freekeh in whole grain form or cracked, and in its cracked form — as you’ll see below — it’s relatively quick cooking (15 to 20 minutes or so). This makes it super versatile; you can use it in everything from breakfast porridge to dinner pilafs.
Sam thinks this salad feels much like a wintry, loaded tabbouli and he’s right in the sense that there’s a generous hit of parsley for color and texture. I love the marriage of the toasty walnuts with the slightly smoky flavor of the freekeh — and the salty green olives, lemony vinaigrette and tender zucchini make this salad truly come alive with different flavors and textures. I prefer to serve it room temperature or warm, not cold; it’s best to let all the flavors marry and mingle, and if it’s served right out of the refrigerator, it just doesn’t taste as good. That being said, it’s great stored in the refrigerator for up to 4 days if you have leftovers.
Freekeh is still not as easily found as some more popular whole grains; I found a bag at our local Whole Foods and I’ve also bought it online. I’ve tried both Freekehlicious and Freekeh Foods brand, and both are great. If you just can’t find it in your city, you can certainly swap in another chewy, hearty grain like farro, wheat berries or buckwheat groats. Remember, we’re talking ease and less stress here for January, so do as you please with this salad; I’d love to hear if you use any different grains or vegetables that you’re excited about.
Quick side note for those of you in the Seattle area: I’ll be giving an author talk at the Everett Public Library this Saturday, 1/24 at 10:30 a.m. There will be treats from my cookbook as well as an awesome used cookbook swap; I think it’ll be a really sweet morning and I’d love to see you there.
For Freekeh Salad:
For Lemon-Parmesan Vinaigrette:
Rinse freekeh in a colander. Bring a medium pot of water to boil and add the freekeh. Bring the water back up to a boil, then cover the pot and reduce the heat to low. Simmer for 15 to 18 minutes, or until the grains are tender (but will remain chewy as is their nature). Drain any excess water and set aside.
In a skillet heat the oil over medium heat. Stir in the garlic and cook for just a few minutes, or until it starts to very lightly brown. Fold in the zucchini and the salt, and stir well. Push the zucchini around the pan so the cubes are in as much of a single layer as possible. Increase the heat to medium-high and cook until the zucchini browns evenly, about 8-10 minutes.
Meanwhile, make the dressing: whisk the lemon juice and shallot together in a small bowl and set aside for 10 minutes. Then whisk in the olive oil, vinegar, Parmesan and salt.
In a large serving bowl, toss together the cooked freekeh, sautéed zucchini, leek, toasted walnuts, green olives, parsley and dill. Dress the salad, taste and season with additional salt and black pepper, as needed.
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.