Last weekend I taught a cooking class called Summer Whole Grain Bowls at The Pantry. It was a new class for me: new recipes, new flow, uncertain timing. A few days before the class I realized I was strangely dreading it, and I usually love teaching so I couldn’t quite figure out why. Part of it certainly was that it was new material, but the other part came down to pure baby logistics. Oliver is still nursing so being away from him and prepping and teaching students for 5-6 hours ends up being stressful and, frankly, uncomfortable. To pull it off involves a partner who brings you the baby the second class is over as well as a baby patient enough to nurse in the back of a very hot car, balanced next to a box of cookbooks and a case of Le Croix. And then a mama who heads back indoors to prep for the next day’s class. Let’s just say Sam and I were happy to see Sunday evening roll around.
All of that being said, the class was spectacular. The students were interested and engaged and really excited to learn. I feared the topic would feel too pedestrian and that there wasn’t enough technique involved — let’s face it, we weren’t making homemade croissants. We were whipping up simple dressings, cooking up pots of grains, and chopping and slicing beautiful summer produce to mix together salads for lunch. But I have to continually remind myself that cooking a variety of whole grains and figuring out what to do with them is new to a lot of people. The thing I’m hearing more and more from students these days is that they’re most excited to take classes that give them the little nudge they need to try a few new recipes that they can actually make at home in a short period of time. Recipes that will help them prep for the work week. Recipes that can serve as a quick dinner without much fuss or stress. So while we weren’t learning how to incorporate layers of butter into homemade croissants, we were talking all about how to realistically feed our families and ourselves. How to avoid that Sad Desk Lunch. I left really inspired by their energy and enthusiasm, and I think they felt similarly. And it’s possible I made some new freekeh and millet fans. Here’s hoping.
The recipe I’m sharing with you today isn’t one that I taught in class, but it might as well have been. It’s one that I’ve added into the Megan’s Favorites category on this site, and it definitely deserves prime real estate there. Our local coop here in Seattle, PCC, makes a killer deli salad called Perfect Protein Salad and when I’m racing out the door to work, fully realizing I have nothing to eat for lunch, I zip in there for a quick container of it. And a coconut water if I’m feeling like really treating myself. Maybe some dark chocolate peanut butter cups, too. My employees can attest to the fact that it’s either that or a frozen burrito which just seems slightly sad on most days. So not enough. So … frozen.
What I love about this salad is that it feels so fresh and light yet also really substantial. It’s made from a base of whole grains and chickpeas with bits of carrot, celery, onion, fresh parsley, and herbs folded in — all tossed in a creamy blend of mayonnaise, lemon juice and apple cider vinegar. It’s quite humble in most ways: no trendy ingredients, no flashy seasoning. It’s the kind of salad I imagine was a real hit in the 70’s, and has miraculously hung around. Last month I decided to look online to see if anyone had tried to recreate the salad, and what I found was far better: PCC has published the recipe! All those mornings of pulling (speeding?) into the parking lot and racing in to grab a pint could’ve been at least partially avoided by having a homemade batch on hand. So while cooking up a pot of grains was about the last thing I felt like doing after cooking up many pots of grains all weekend with my students, I put some wheat berries on the stove Sunday evening and started chopping carrots, cucumber and parsley. We always have cans of chickpeas on hand, so it came together really quickly.
I called Sam into the kitchen when it was done and had him taste it, asking him to report back. What does it remind you of? He wasn’t answering as quickly as I’d hoped. C’mon, what is this?! His answer still wasn’t forthcoming, his overall enthusiasm for the salad perhaps not as fierce as mine. All of that’s to say, we both took it for lunch twice this week and were immensely happy and grateful that it was in the fridge. I’m newly inspired to walk the walk and cook pots of grains on the weekends like I used to do pre-Oliver, so that hearty salads are (almost) just as easy as grabbing that frozen burrito.
I find that this chickpea salad is perfect on its own for a light lunch. But if we’ve got an abundance of greens or if I’m feeling slightly fancy, I’ll serve it on a bed of arugula or spinach — with a few good stirs, I don’t even need dressing as the light sauce from the chickpeas dresses the greens perfectly.
A few ingredient notes: while this salad calls for spelt or wheat berries, you can use any hearty grain you like, really. Farro would be a strong candidate and barley would be great (just don’t overcook it). In the original recipe, they use a vegan mayonnaise, but I use the real thing here (and a little more of it). If you are vegan, feel free to make that substitution. I also think using half plain yogurt would work just fine. And fresh herbs! By all means swap them in. The original recipe calls for dried and I remained pretty true to it, but I think next time some fresh chives would be really nice.
Slightly adapted from: PCC
Add 3 cups of water to a medium pot and add the spelt berries. Over medium-high heat, bring the water to a boil. Reduce heat to low and cover, cooking until tender but still chewy, about 45 minutes. Drain and cool.
In a salad, bowl mix together cooked spelt berries, garbanzo beans, diced cucumbers, green pepper, celery, carrots, red onions, green onions and chopped parsley.
Mix together mayonnaise, lemon juice, vinegar, dill, salt, basil and garlic; pour over salad and mix well. Serve immediately or refrigerate. Salad will stay fresh for up to 4 days, covered, in the refrigerator.
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.