On January 1, my sisters and mom texted our family chain asking what my word of the year would be. I’d loosely seen people talking about this idea online — the practice of choosing just one word to help guide your intentions and actions — but I hadn’t given it much thought. Didn’t really plan to, in fact; wasn’t even sure I found it that compelling, except… I knew immediately what my word was: pause. I recall in years past scheming up long, ambitious lists of things I wanted to tackle. But this year? No such list. Not that I don’t intend to do some tackling; I just want to carefully consider what those things might be.
A few of you may have seen my Instagram post last week in which I mentioned a book I’m reading, Designing Your Life. I’m generally a bit skeptical of books like this, but this one resonated as it talked about approaching your life as if it’s a problem to solve, much like designers approach a project — breaking it down first and then building it back up. If you’re feeling a bit stuck with work or fulfilling personal goals, I highly recommend it. I got to the exercise section of the book where authors Dave Evans and Bill Burnett encourage you to think about your life as a dashboard comprised of Health, Work, Play and Love. They have a visual that looks like the gas gauge in your car and ask you to shade the extent to which you feel each is full and satisfied. Work and Love are pretty self explanatory; Health is the physical but also the spiritual and emotional, and Play is something “just for the joy of it.”
I stopped cold when I came to that explanation. Something just for the joy of it! Imagine that! While I dutifully sat shading in my work gauge all the way full and my love gauge pretty darn full, I paused and realized my Play gauge was virtually empty. Well, that’s unsettling. My mom reminded me that sitting on the floor and reading to Oliver or chasing him around the house making lion noises fit squarely into my Play meter, which is certainly true. But most other things I could think of to possibly plunk into Play (yoga, hikes) had another end goal in mind (fitness, head-clearing); if I was honest with myself, they weren’t just for the joy of it.
So on this Monday afternoon, a bright wintry day when the snow is gleaming off the Olympics and there’s promise of leftover birthday cake at home, I’m reminding myself about my word this year. The word I didn’t really set out to choose, but that, as woo woo as it sounds, I think chose me.
Something I did explicitly choose? These beet burgers. They’re all about working a little less and playing more, perhaps in ways you wouldn’t guess. First, the recipe makes 8-10 burgers and the leftovers are great for easy, simple lunches, so you won’t have to spend too much mental energy on meal planning. In our house lately, we have to think about feeding ourselves but also our toddler, so now I really only gravitate to recipes that Oliver can eat as well — that way, I’m not spending all of my time in the kitchen or staying up at night to try to prep things for him to eat the next day. Because that’s making the Work gauge overflow at this point. Less of that. More sitting on the floor eating leftover beet burgers with our hands. Just for the joy of it.
Cook’s Notes: These beet burgers don’t have bread crumbs or any flour to help bind them, relying solely on egg, so they are quite delicate and a bit crumbly. I’ve made them a few times and find that an extra egg helps hold them together so while Luisa calls for just one, I’ve added an extra one to the recipe below. Make them on the smaller side to avoid any chance they’ll fall apart on you, and when flipping them, do so with care. I didn’t mind the slightly crumbly texture — we just slid them right into a bun and everyone was quite happy.
Another note: I happened to be out of green lentils, so I used red lentils and they turned out great. Personally, I find it a little onerous to cook up such a small amount of lentils and rice, so I made a proper pot of each and saved what I didn’t use to make grain bowls or fold into soups or salads throughout the week. Last, do know that grating the beets is a bit messy – I use a box grater and grate them directly onto a cutting board we don’t care about. Enjoy!
I love serving these vibrant burgers nestled into a seedy bun with sliced avocado, a few greens, and an easy herbed yogurt sauce (rough “recipe” below). You could really take these burgers to the next level with sauteed mushrooms and melted cheese, but as Luisa mentions, you can also eat them more like latkes or falafel. The burger mix itself can be made a day in advance and stored in the refrigerator, and the cooked burgers stay good for up to four days, covered and refrigerated.
Recipe barely adapted from Louisa Shafia’s The New Persian Kitchen
For the Burgers:
For the Herbed Yogurt Sauce:
Slice the onion to a thickness of 1/4 inch. In a medium skillet, saute the onions in the oil over medium-high heat for 10 minutes, until they start to darken and caramelize. Reduce the heat slightly and add the beets along with the garlic, walnuts, raisins, and paprika, and cook for 10 minutes, stirring frequently.
Allow the mixture to cool for 5 minutes, then transfer to a food processor and pulse several times until chunky (you still want it a little chunky here). Scrape the mixture into a large bowl and fold in the lentils, salt and pepper.
Replace the food processor (no need to rinse it!), add the rice and eggs, and pulse to form a coarse puree. Scrape the rice mixture into the bowl with the onion-lentil mixture and mix well.
Lightly oil your hands and divide the dough into 8 -10 portions just under 1-inch thick.
Heat a heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat and add oil to coat the bottom. Place the burgers in the skillet and cook undisturbed for 5 minutes. Very gently flip the burgers and turn down the heat to low. Cover and cook for 10 minutes, until the burgers have a firm, brown crust.
Meanwhile in a small bowl, whisk together the yogurt, herbs and salt. Serve burgers with your favorite accompaniments – I love sliced avocado, a few greens and a generous spread of yogurt sauce.
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.