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.
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.