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.
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.
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.
We walked to the library last week and I had a strange realization standing in line watching Sam check out his usual massive stack of books: Will I ever have the time to read stacks of books again? I used to be much more of a reader than I am today -- a fact I'm not at all proud of. But when evening rolls around and the more formal workday ends, I find emails and other odds and ends creep in. Walking home from the library, I began obsessing over free time for reading, asking Sam if we'd ever be those two old people who study bird manuals and can recognize birds on walks. I want to have the time to read bird manuals someday. For now though, we're young and we're working a lot. We did sneak away on that one-night camping trip I told you about, and cooked some interesting, haphazard meals which I hope to share with you soon. For now though, for summer: a strawberry dessert recipe.
Much like friends, types of Sunday mornings, or books -- there are many different kinds of desserts. Sometimes you may be in the mood for a light French cake piled high with summer fruit. Other days, a thick slice of fragrant pound cake will do. And then there are those days when you crave a rich chocolate mousse that you share after a night of good conversation and a little too much wine. But let's be honest. When it comes right down to it, the most basic and unassuming dessert of all is sometimes the only one that will do. A good and simple affair. Vanilla ice cream. So I want to talk about that today--about a dessert that withstands the test of time, that will always be there for you. A dessert that is far from trendy, that doesn't play favorites or trick you into thinking it's something that it's not. It's a good foundation. A solid beginning.
[ Pie. if you've been around here much in the last few months, you know that I make pie. A lot of pie. And I'm particularly excited to share this pie with you today because it helped me break out of a rut. A pie rut. A baking rut. A Marge inspiration rut.