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.
Winter Soups and Stews
If your house is anything like ours, last week wasn't our most inspired in terms of cooking. We're all suffering from the post-election blues -- the sole upside being Oliver's decision to sleep-in until 7 am for the first time in many, many months; I think he's trying to tell us that pulling the covers over our heads and hibernating for awhile is ok. It's half-convincing. For much of the week, instead of cooking, there'd been takeout pizza and canned soup before, at week's end, I decided it was time to pour a glass of wine and get back into the kitchen. I was craving something hearty and comforting that we could eat for a few days. Something that wouldn't remind me too much of Thanksgiving because, frankly, I can't quite gather the steam to start planning for that yet. It was time for a big bowl of chili.
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.
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).
One of the things I wanted to accomplish before really returning to work in earnest was to print some of our honeymoon photos and get them into an album. This project has taken far longer than expected as I find myself daydreaming about the craggy streets of Naples and meeting up with our friends Mataio and Jessica for a late night slice of pizza which we ate sitting on the sidewalk before embarking on an aimless but wonderful stroll of the city. There are photos of our balcony by the sea, most with tanned limbs, sandy sandals and a Campari and soda gracing the periphery of the frame. There was the little grocery store up the hill from our apartment on the Amalfi Coast that had the sweetest, tiniest strawberries and the best yogurt in little glass jars. Tomatoes drying in the sun, Aperol spritzes and salty peanuts before dinner at the bar across from the church square where all the neighborhood kids played kickball. As I sit here typing this now, photos remain scattered on my desk and it's likely they may not make it into the proper slots in the album anytime soon. Of course, they have me dreaming of sunshine and long days with little agenda, but they also have me thinking about the simplicity of our meals in Italy and how truly easy it was to eat well. Coincidentally, a few days ago Rachel Roddy's lusty new cookbook (can we call it lusty?!), My Kitchen in Rome, arrived at our doorstep. Clearly it was time to set the photos aside and get into the kitchen.
And suddenly, it's fall. I find that realization always comes not so much with the dates on the calendar as it does the leaves on the ground, the first crank of the heat in the morning, the dusky light on the way home from an evening run. Because we were gone on the train for nearly a week, I feel like fall happened here in Seattle during that very time. I left town eating tomatoes and corn and returned to find squashes and pumpkins in the market. It was that quick. And so, it only seemed fitting that I make this soup, one that has graced the fall table of each and every apartment (and now house) I've ever lived. In fact, I'm surprised that I hadn't yet made it for you here, and delighted to share it with you today.