Last weekend it was so windy – apocalyptically stormy, you could say – that our tent at the farmers market was uprooted by gusts of wind that were not messing around. I wasn’t there, but apparently despite being heavily weighted down and with four customers holding onto each corner, it quite literally blew down the block. Sam, from across town, was reporting trees falling on every block and traffic lights out across the city. The next morning on a walk with Oliver around Green Lake, we were met with that same biting wind and ended up retreating for a hot chocolate instead. ‘Tis the season in Seattle: we all get a little giddy and ahead of ourselves when we spot the cherry blossoms and daffodils, and I always trick myself into thinking that with the start of daylight savings time, summer must be right around the corner.
In truth, before we had Oliver, we’d often travel somewhere sunny for a little mood boost around this time of year. When I moved from California, many friends – other (empathetic) ‘expats’ now living in the Pacific Northwest – recommended this: if you know what’s good for you, they’d all say, go find the sun in February or March, and we would follow that advice faaaaaithfully. But with a baby, this just isn’t where our priorities are this year, and I’ve found myself relying on other antics like buying out of season strawberries, drinking white wine with dinner, buying a new pair of sandals that likely will not see the light of day for the next two months, and making big, colorful pots of feel good, springy soup. Let’s not kid ourselves: Cherry blossoms or not, Seattle’s no Palm Springs when it gets down to bathing in the sunlight. But if you step outside onto your little porch, smell the honeysuckle blooming, take notice of the longer, lighter days and think about how you simply can’t wait to see your baby crawling around on the sand when it’s warm enough to stroll down to the beach, it starts looking better in its own light.
I spend a great deal of time thinking about how to get back into the kitchen and cook. Everyone said that it would all change after a baby and I read posts touting the magic of meal planning and Quick Weeknight Dinners, assuring myself this would not be us. How hard could it really be to find time to cook again? Hard, it turns out. You were all right, alright? And it’s clear I’m not the only one thinking about these things (did you all see Molly’s post on Cooking with a Young Child? Kasey’s recent post on Cooking These Days?).
I knew in the weeks after having Oliver things would need to shift. Other people would visit and cook for us, friends would even deliver food. We’d order in. I would take a huge step back. But much sooner than I’d expected I began yearning to take a step back in, despite having neither the time or, frankly, the mental clarity to do so. While I realize that the discussion of cooking with a baby babbling on the kitchen floor isn’t for everyone, I do think, baby or not, we all deal with slumps and hurdles in trying to stay motivated in the kitchen, so I thought I’d share a few tricks that have helped me get back into cooking. Okay, not every night. Hardly. I probably cook a homemade meal either from a recipe or by instinct / feel about twice a week, the other days pulling something quick together with Sam, like a big salad, quesadillas or some sort of whole grain or pasta situation. But, much as our stormy blossoming season, or this little light of mine learning to sit up, I think we’re on our way there.
A Tiny Bit of Gear: I was very, very weary of buying a bunch of baby stuff when we learned we were pregnant. To be honest, I can’t stand clutter and I just hated the looks of most of it. But we’ve slowly acquired a few more things and some of them have proved to be indispensable in getting things done in the kitchen. Oliver has a Bobby Lounger Pillow where he sits happily playing with a toy or two for a good ten or fifteen minutes (twenty if the Gods are favoring you). If you race, you can get some serious chopping done in this time. It helps if you sing in low tones and do some crazy lady dancing antics. Tap dancing works, too. For days when Oliver isn’t feeling the Boppy, we love the Solly Baby Wrap. Once you get the hang of it, it’s really easy to wear, keeps your baby close and allows you to be hands free in the kitchen. Now that Oliver’s become more aware and interested in what’s going on around him, I generally talk him through the recipe steps and what will come next. Then if things start really going south, we turn to our trusty pacifier-with-clips, a lifesaver sparing me from constantly bending down to pick the pacifiers up when Oliver inevitably spits them out (I love these not-ugly ones from Madeline’s Box).
Menu Planning: I remember probably about a year before Oliver was born, we were at a friends house and she had a dinner menu for the next two weeks posted on the fridge. I was part in awe at her organization and part horrified at the lack of spontaneity in their weeks: what if you don’t feel like taco night next Thursday? Now after having Oliver, I totally get it. Sometimes, it’s all about just putting a plan in place and eating some damn tacos, whether you really feel like them or not. So while we certainly don’t plan out a two week menu (or even a one week menu), I’ve been trying to be really deliberate about picking two recipes or things to make at the beginning of the week so that we have some cornerstone meals and then we fill in the rest with quick, easy dinners or leftovers. Or occasionally a pizza from Delancey.
Cook the Night Before: One of the only ways I’ve found that I can actually cook something even slightly involved for dinner is to cook the night before. Usually this is long after Oliver goes to sleep and long after we’ve eaten dinner … so we’re talking 9 or 10 p.m. At first, I felt really bitter and unhappy doing this, and could think of 99 things I’d rather be doing. Of course my mind wandered to ‘this is what life is now: I’ll never cook dinner at a normal time again.’ But! Come the next day when we have beef carnitas all ready to go or homemade tomato sauce and braised greens, the day feels much more under control. A friend recently lamented that she was having a horrible time cooking dinner because by the time dinner time rolls around, the babies (she has twins!) are fussy and the countdown to bedtime has already begun. I suggested this trick to her. For me, it seems the only truly sane way to do it the way I want to do it. A late night cocktail helps, too.
Be Cool With Less: Another reason I initially felt defeated during the dinner hour was in looking at our plates and feeling like we were failing: it was so different than how we used to eat. These days we often reheat soup and thaw a baguette. Sometimes we make grilled cheese or scrambled eggs. We eat a lot of scrambled eggs. Sometimes if we’re feeling fancy we dress them up with chevre and chives. But as with most things Baby, I remind myself it’s not permanent. Right now, it’s all about just getting something to eat before it gets dark. I try to look away from all of those glossy articles and blogs promising recipes and tips for new moms on How to Live Your Best Life in the Kitchen every darn night of the week: it’s possible they’re all living on Mars. We all do our best.
Give Yourself a Break: For nights when shopping and preparing a meal from scratch just isn’t an option, we’ve fallen for this new healthy meal delivery service called Sunbasket. It’s currently available in a handful of states including Washington and California (check their site to see if they deliver to your state) and much like the dozens of other services out there, the meals can all be pulled together in 30 minutes or under and they offer options for specialized diets including paleo, gluten-free, and vegetarian. But beyond all this, I think Sunbasket really stands out for one reason: their approach to waste. They actually include a shipping label so that you can mail back the shipping box along with all of the packaging and they reuse it for a future shipment. So when things start feeling too busy or overwhelming, it never hurts to go the easy route and have someone deliver the ingredients for your dinner to your front door. We recently tried their Spring Vegetable Tofu Stir Fry and loved it. And it actually made a generous enough portion that we had it for lunch the next day. If you’re interested in ordering a Sunbasket box of your own, they’re offering A Sweet Spoonful readers $30 off your first order.
Another great tip that I didn’t formally build into this list is doubling a good recipe and freezing some of it, which is exactly what I did with this recipe for Power Greens Soup. I made this soup late at night and ended up photographing it the next morning while Oliver was bouncing away in his heinously ugly jungle jumper contraption that we’ve exiled into the corner of the kitchen. It’s a soup that started out of necessity: on a very rainy day last week I ended up going to Costco with Oliver because, to be honest, I needed a destination. We usually go on long walks in the morning but with the awful weather, I was at a loss for where to go. So we got in the car and strolled the aisles of Costco, picking up some odd things: a ton of goat cheese, a ton of almonds, a ton of cheddar cheese, a ton of greens and a ton of broccoli. I got home and judged myself, wondering what we’d now do with a ton of said items. And as the days ticked on, I started to worry that the greens and broccoli were going to go bad, so I sat down and pencilled a recipe for a soup packed with greens — a soup that would feel like spring even though spring produce isn’t quite available yet. A simple, rustic soup that I could brighten with a bit of lemon and sop up with a slice of the olive oil brioche our friend Mataio recently brought to our house when he stayed the night.
It turns out there are lots of recipes for green soup out there, most relying on a combination of greens, lemon, onion and potato – or sometimes rice. I wanted to incorporate broccoli and celery simply because we had them on hand, really pack it with hearty greens and fold in nutty Parmesan at the end. While it may not win Best Looking Soup of the Year award, I think it’s a winner. I hope you find the time this week to get into the kitchen at some point and cook something that makes you and your people happy, baby or not. Soup or not. Just something good that speaks to you.
Like most rustic soups, this recipe is super adaptable. While I give pretty precise measurements, there’s no need to be too strict here. Worst case scenario if you start to futz with it: you’ll need a little more liquid or perhaps a little more seasoning. When you shop for your greens, many of them now come in 5 ounce bags, so if this is the route you’re going, you’ll need to grab three of those when you’re at the market. Otherwise, simply weigh out the greens on your kitchen scale or estimate in handfuls. I know it seems like a ton of greens but they do cook down quite a bit and diminish in size. Again, going by feel isn’t a bad thing.
In a large soup pot or Dutch oven, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion and celery and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook an additional minute. Fold the chopped broccoli and potato into the pot, season with salt and pepper, and cook down until vegetables soften, about 7-9 minutes.
Add the vegetable stock. Stir well and bring to a boil. Add the greens and stir until they wilt, about 2 minutes. Remove from the heat. Using a food processor or blender, puree the soup in batches. Pour back into the pot. Add the lemon juice and stir. If the soup feels too thick, add a bit of water to loosen until it’s the consistency you like. Stir in the grated Parmesan and taste. Adjust seasoning if necessary. Serve in your favorite bowls with an extra sprinkling of Parmesan.
Note: Sunbasket has sponsored a portion of this post and Madeline’s Box and Solly Baby Wrap kindly sent along their products for us to try. All opinions are my own.
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.