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.
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.