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.
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.