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.
Glimpses of Spring
We returned home from San Francisco on New Years Eve just in time for dinner, and craving greens -- or anything other than baked goods and pizza (ohhhh San Francisco, how I love your bakeries. And citrus. And winter sunshine). Instead of driving straight home, we stopped at our co-op where I ran in for some arugula, an avocado, a bottle of Prosecco, and for the checkout guys to not-so-subtly mock the outlook of our New Years Eve: rousing party, eh? They looked to be in their mid-twenties and I figured I probably looked ancient to them, sad even. But really, there wasn't much sad (or rousing, to be fair) about our evening: putting Oliver to bed, opening up holiday cards and hanging them in the kitchen, and toasting the New Year with arugula, half a quesadilla and sparkling wine. It wasn't lavish. But it's what we both needed. (Or at least what we had to work with.) Since then, I've been more inspired to cook lots of "real" food versus all of the treats and appetizers and snacks the holidays always bring on. I made Julia Turshen's curried red lentils for the millionth time, a wintry whole grain salad with tuna and fennel, roasted potatoes, and this simple green minestrone that I've taken for lunch this week. Determined to fit as many seasonal vegetables into a bowl as humanly possible, I spooned a colorful pesto on top, as much for the reminder of warmer days to come as for the accent in the soup (and for the enjoyment later of slathering the leftover pesto on crusty bread).
It turns out shopping for wedding dresses is nothing like they make it appear in the movies. Or at least it hasn't been for me. Angels don't sing. Stars don't explode. Relatives don't cry. There isn't a sudden heart-stopping moment that this is, in fact, "the one." To be honest, I always knew that I wasn't the kind of gal for whom angels would sing or stars would explode but I did think I'd have some kind of moment where I could tell I'd found the best dress. Instead, my mom flew into town and we spent three (yes, three!!) days shopping for dresses, and since then I've been back to the stores we visited -- and I'm more undecided than ever. Tomorrow morning I'll return with my friend Keena to try and tie this business up once and for all. Cross your fingers.
When I was single and living alone in the Bay Area, I made virtually the same thing for dinner each night. I ate meals quickly while in front of the computer. Or even worse: the television. This most often included what I call "Mexican Pizzas" which were basically glorified quesadillas baked in the oven until crispy. Sometimes, if I was really feeling like cooking, I'd whip up a quick stir-fry with frozen vegetables from Trader Joe's or a mushroom frittata using pre-sliced mushrooms. Mostly, though, it was Mexican Pizzas -- a good four or five nights a week. Today, thankfully, dinner looks a lot different. Meals in general look a lot different. How would I explain that difference? I think that ultimately how we feel about our life colors how we choose to feed ourselves and the importance that we place on preparing our own meals.
Today was 75 degrees in Seattle and it seemed the whole city was out and about drinking iced coffee in tank tops and perhaps not working all that hard. When we have a hit of sunshine like this in April (or, really, any time of the year), we're all really good at making excuses to leave the office early -- or, simply, to "work from home." I just got back from LA last night, unpacked in a whirlwind this morning, and took Oliver to meet up with three friends from our parents group at the zoo. The only other time I'd been to the Seattle zoo was once with Sam a few years ago when we arrived thirty minutes before closing and ended up doing a whirlwind tour -- sprinting from the giraffes to the massive brown bear to the meerkat. The visit today was much different: we strolled slowly trying to avoid the spring break crowds and beating sun. I managed to only get one of Oliver's cheeks sunburned, and he even got in a decent nap. A success of an afternoon, I'd say. Coming home I realized we didn't have much in the fridge for lunch -- but thankfully there was a respectable stash of Le Croix (Le Croix season is back!) and a small bowl of this whole grain salad I made right before I left town. It's the kind of salad that's meant for this time of year: it pulls off colorful and fresh despite the fact that much of the true spring and summer produce isn't yet available. And for that reason, I make a few versions of it in early spring, often doubling the recipe so there's always the possibility of having a small bowl at 1 p.m. while the baby naps in the car seat, one cheek sunburned, windows and back door open -- a warm breeze creeping into the kitchen.
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.