I’ve been thinking a lot about work lately, mainly because both Sam and I are beginning to fall behind with our own work and trying to figure out how to Balance It All with a baby and a family and a mortgage and dreams of cabining in distant sunny valleys. Ha! I have a few wonderful employees so while I was away on maternity leave, everything at Marge functioned just fine, leading me to start asking some bigger questions of myself: where should I put my energies and time? How can I get to a point where I feel like I’m doing work that really helps others and makes a difference? What’s next for me? Many of us spend such large chunks of our days, weeks, and months at work that it makes sense to question some of these things. Are we doing good? Do we feel good? Are we being challenged, stimulated, excited? Right now, Sam and I are balancing childcare on our own: he spends two days of the work week with Oliver and I the other three. So the stakes feel higher for both of us; when I wake up and it’s my workday, it feels like the clock is ticking and it’s more important than ever to make it really count.
Making your time count – like a checkbook you hope will, despite previous experiences, somehow balance itself – is a tricky and occasionally anxious arithmetic. There’s this narrative in large pockets of our society that there’s something we’re all called toward or meant to do … and I think this really trips so many of us up. I’ve seen it with my employees; I’ve seen it with my sisters; I’ve seen it with myself. When I taught Freshman Composition at Boston College years ago we were required to hold office hours in which we’d see students and chat about the course and the college experience in general. I found we’d always get sidetracked into “Life Talks,” touching on what they were meant to do, what classes they should take to get there, if they were on the “right path.” There was such a fierce, underlying anxiety to it all and I’d constantly assure them that it would all work out just how it’s supposed to. When you’re 18 that’s a hard thing to hear, but maybe no less so – to believe as much as to hear – when you’re 28, or 38, or…
I recently had the opportunity to travel to Los Angeles for one night to be part of a panel at Expo West. It was my first time away from Oliver, hard-enough in its own right, but I had a hunch it was good for me to get out and talk about my work again. Before the panel, several of us were having breakfast together when one of the panelists started talking about her teenage son. She was concerned that he wouldn’t get into a good college – the problem, she said, was that he wasn’t particularly into school. I asked what kinds of things he was into, and she sighed and talked all about his proclivity toward skateboarding. He spends hours a day perfecting his skills, knows everyone at the local skate shops, has a big community of like-minded friends, attends skating events around the city, and has learned all about video production and photography … so he can document himself and others skateboarding. I listened to her carefully and, when there was a pause in the conversation, told her what I thought: she has nothing to worry about. It’s the kids who don’t have a passion or a fiery interest in anything that you’ve got to worry about. While she may not necessarily agree with what it is he’s excited about, I bet this kid is going to follow his passion somewhere pretty cool. It might not be in the hallways of academia or in the boardroom his mom may be envisioning, but such has been the case with so many influential, smart people we’ve all looked up to at one time or another. (Looking at you, Tony Hawk.)
A few days ago I came across Jeff Goins’s essay about this very thing and found myself lost in it, immediately sending it to my sisters. It made me think of the panelist’s son; it made me think of my past students, of myself at a younger age; if I’m honest, of myself now. In his piece, Goins talks about how the path and the clarity that so many of us seek is really a myth: “A calling is the accumulation of a person’s life’s experiences, skills, and passions — all put to work.” He gives an example of a woman he consulted with who wasn’t sure if certain ideas for a career path were her actual dream … or just another idea. Goins states, “The problem is we don’t often know what we should be doing until we start doing it. Experience leads to competence, and competence creates confidence.” His takeaway? You become what you practice: “you won’t find your dream by standing still.” I like this. If we all sit around and marinate too hard over what our true calling is, we’d never do anything. And as I get older I see, more often than not, that true calling (if it exists) is more often stumbled upon than assigned – we get there on our way to something else. Maybe so as long as we’re moving forward, we’re on our way.
Next week I’m traveling to Los Angeles again for another quick one night trip; it took me a long time to come around to this one as I questioned if I’d make connections while there, if it’d further my career in some small way, if it was worth the time away from Oliver. But it turns out these questions, much like the larger ones about your life’s work, can’t be resolved quickly. So instead I listen to the self that was giving advice to college kids all those years ago: it will somehow work out. And I’ve been trying to put some faith in Goins’ point — and what I imagine the panelist’s skateboarding son would say, too — that moving forward, just moving, is the work right there.
Speaking of work! I developed this tart recipe in partnership with Darigold using a few of their ingredients. We use their butter at home for baking, but I had yet to try their new white cheddar and we’ve been loving it sliced on crackers before dinner — or in recipes like this savory tart. You may recognize the crust recipe from the Smoked Salmon Tart in my cookbook; that recipe is still a favorite, so it was a treat to seasonally revamp it here.
Megan’s Note: Some of you have asked if you can just cook the kale along with the mushroom mixture to save steps / dishes. I’ve done it both ways and the reason I like the method below (even though it seems slightly fussier) is that it gives you the opportunity to really squeeze the moisture out of the greens, ensuring for a nice crisp crust. Worst case scenario if you want to cook the greens with the other vegetables is your crust will be slightly on the soft side. No big deal.
I have made this tart many times with all manner of ingredients for the filling, so feel free to use any seasonal vegetables you’re particularly excited about. The millet in the crust gives it an addictive crunch and while the ingredient list definitely doesn’t shy away from the butter, I feel slightly more virtuous since it relies on whole grain flour, millet and cornmeal. The crust is incredibly forgiving: I’ve made it with spelt flour and whole wheat pastry flour and it turned out fantastic with both, so feel free to play around here as well. The tart reheats beautifully in the oven (I avoid the microwave because I like the crust to stay crisp), and feels just fancy enough to serve to guests although we love to have it for dinner with a simple salad and enjoy the leftovers for a few days after that.
Prepare the Crust: Butter a 10 x 1 inch tart pan with a removable bottom. Using a food processor, pulse together the cornmeal, flour and salt. Add the cubes of butter and pulse until mixture resembles coarse meal (alternatively, you can use a pastry blender or your fingertips to work the butter into the dry ingredients). Add ice water and pulse until the dough starts to look like wet stand. Test to see if it’s done by gently squeezing a small piece between your fingers: you’re looking for it to hold together and not crumble away. If it seems too crumbly, add more water, 1 teaspoon at a time. Turn the dough out into a large bowl and mix in the millet using a fork. Press the dough evenly into the bottom and up the sides of the prepared pan. Chill in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour and up to 1 day.
Prepare the Filling: Preheat the oven to 375F. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and add the kale. Cook until just softened, about 1-2 minutes. Use a slotted spoon and transfer to a large bowl of ice water to stop the kale from cooking. Remove from the cool water and, using your hands, squeeze as much water from the leaves as possible, laying the greens out on clean work surface. They tend to clump into a ball when squeezed, so spend a few moments “de-clumping” and separating them.
In a medium sauté pan over medium heat, warm the olive oil and sauté the shallots until tender, about 3 minutes. Add in the garlic and sauté for an additional 30 seconds. Add the mushrooms, thyme and a generous pinch of salt and cook down until tender and fragrant, 5-7 minutes.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the milk, sour cream, eggs, salt and pepper. Fold in the grated cheddar cheese.
Place the prepared crust on a small baking sheet for easy transport to and from the oven. Leaving behind any cooking liquid from the pan (I use a slotted spoon here), spoon the mushroom mixture on top of the crust followed by the kale (arrange in an even layer). Pour the custard mixture on top of the kale. Bake for 40-45 minutes or until the top is golden brown and the filling is completely set. Let cool for 15-20 minutes, unmold the tart and serve warm or room temperature. Refrigerate, covered, any leftovers for up to 3-4 days.
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.