You often hear how women begin to nest towards the end of pregnancy. This looks different for different people — some staying up late at night finishing painting projects, others buying new furniture, stocking the freezer or spending time on the nursery. Next week I’ll be entering the third trimester and I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of nesting and of spending time at home. In truth, nesting isn’t something that’s new to me: I come from a family of nesters. My dad opened a furniture store the year I was born in Northern California and during my childhood it slowly grew to be a larger chain. He cared about the fixtures in our house, and would sit with me on our front stoop pointing out examples of good and bad taste — mostly in cars that would drive by but I seem to recall this with passerbyers and their attire, too. I realize this probably sounds a bit pretentious or maybe even downright snooty, but we grew up pretty humbly in those days; it was more a matter of strong opinion than a reflection of, say, having more than anyone else on the block. Those opinions, of course, were contagious and today I care very much about the way our house is situated and how we spend our time at home (although I don’t sit out on our stoop and talk to Sam about who I feel has good and bad taste on the block).
My mom also cared a great deal about our home life: she always had fresh flowers in the kitchen or on the dining room table and insisted we all sit and eat dinner together each night. Even today, if you have a hard day or things feel a little off, she’ll suggest fresh flowers and I’ve come to realize she’s right: they really can fix many of life’s very minor problems. In addition to bouquets, my mom was always an enthusiastic consumer of seasonal wreathes and colorful holiday decorations (and still is). She loves a good throw pillow and clean-burning taper candles. My people care about their surroundings.
So as I start looking toward the things I want to complete before Sprout (our temporary name) is born, I wonder if the nesting urge will grow stronger. I imagine it may not, really, and will consist largely of freezing meals and getting the baby’s room ready. Or maybe it will kick into high gear as I’ll be naturally spending more time getting ready for Sprout and less time doing granola deliveries and shipments. Who knows? Much like the weeks of pregnancy that are now behind me, I can say that the one constant is you just don’t know what any of it will look like. In a way it’s reassuring as you can’t worry too much about things you don’t yet understand. It’s a one step at a time endeavor and if you’re lucky it’s filled with ice cream cones, long neighborhood walks in the evening when it’s still light at 9:30 p.m., and lots of fresh salads that make you look forward to lunch the next day.
Heidi Swanson’s Cucumber Salad from her new book Near and Far is one such salad. I just made this recipe last weekend as Sam and I were lingering at home on a Saturday listening to records and going through old newspapers. It’s the first recipe in Heidi’s beautiful book and the one that most called to me: it looked fresh and snappy yet substantial and interesting (lemongrass! lime! red pepper flakes!)
Heidi’s newest book comes out on September 15, and I think you’re going to get lost in it as much as I did. It’s organized around the theme of place — of recipes that are inspired by her hometown of San Francisco and others that were kickstarted thanks to her travels to Morocco, Japan, Italy, France and India. This particular salad is from one of the San Francisco sections; I made a few tweaks to the recipe, opting to use pumpkin seeds instead of pine nuts and I added in some thin-sliced radishes. I also served mine on a little nest of soba noodles but you could instead fold in additional greens or leftover grains as Heidi suggests. Not that you need to serve it with anything at all: it’s perfect just the way it is. And while I would’ve loved to have this recipe in my back pocket for the July heatwave we had in Seattle, I’m thankful to have it now to help fuel me through the third trimester. Fresh flowers, home projects, business to-do lists (maybe even a seasonal wreath?!) and all.
Ever-so-slightly adapted from Near and Far
Place the cucumbers, onion, radishes, kale and tofu in a large mixing bowl.
In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine the lemongrass, vinegar, lemon juice, honey, and salt and simmer for a couple of minutes — long enough for the honey to dissolve fully. Remove from the heat and whisk in the red pepper flakes. Let cool for 5 minutes and pour over the cucumber mixture. Toss gently but thoroughly and let sit for at least 15 minutes. Toss again and adjust the salt and red pepper to taste.
If you’re serving this salad with soba noodles, cook them according to the instructions on the package. Drain off any residual liquid from the cucumber mixture into a small bowl. If serving with the noodles or with grains, toss them with this liquid. Top with pumpkin seeds and a good squeeze of lime. Serve the remaining lime wedges at the table.
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.