Valentine’s Day came and went with takeout chicken salad sandwiches and a bottle of wine at home. A fancier date night felt tough this year with childcare logistics and, frankly, going out on Valentine’s Day can often be a bummer with fixed price menus and hard-to-get reservations. We’re constantly rejiggering, it seems. So this year, chicken sandwiches by candlelight felt just right. In talking to so many of our friends with young kids, it seems rejiggering is just the order of the day and while I’m generally a fan of planning and to-do lists, I’m getting much better at going with the flow. One of the things that helps is having something at-the-ready in the mornings, so the day’s decision making doesn’t have to include what to make (or eat) for breakfast. It should be pretty simple in the early hours. And lately, simple looks like these chewy granola bars. They’re soft and hefty and feel homemade in the best way possible, and they freeze really well so you can make a big batch and stash some away for those Major Rejiggering Weeks. You know the kind.
I’ve made many a granola bar in my life, and I find they’re much like brownies in the sense that people have very strong opinions about how they like theirs: either you’re camp soft and chewy or camp crunchy, and these are definitely the former. I’ve experimented with many ways to make a much healthier granola bar, decreasing the sweetener and oil as much as possible and the result is often the same: a not-so-tasty pile of granola (not granola bars). So while still packed with healthy whole grains, nuts and natural sweeteners, these are fully stepping up to the plate with lots of almond butter, and a generous hit of coconut oil. If you ask me, good granola and good granola bars need some (good) fat.
For these bars, I partnered with one of my favorite brands, Bob’s Red Mill, and used their organic rolled oats for the base. Bob’s makes so many whole grains and whole grain flours readily available and easy to find — they’re my go-to for everything from oats to cornmeal. In general, I love the combination of cashews, coconut, almonds and honey so those flavors come out big here — but as I discuss in the head note of the recipe, you can use any nuts, seeds or dried fruits you’d like instead.
If you’ve read my cookbook or taken one of my cooking classes, you know that my style of cooking is relatively easy going, and I always love for you to make any adaptations that work better for you or your lifestyle, but I will say there are a few things you really shouldn’t change with this recipe if you want it to work. First, you want to chop your cashews (or any larger nut) pretty darn small or slicing these will inevitably be a bit of a headache. Second, when you’re pressing your mixture into the oiled pan, you want to press quite firmly and really pack it down. This will help it compact and bake into more of a firm bar. Use well-oiled hands or the back of a spatula. I’ll even do a second press halfway through the cook time to continue to compact the mixture, which I’m not sure technically helps them hold together in the long run, but I have a hunch it does. Last, while I know it seems like an impossibly long time to cool, these really do take a good 3 hours to cool completely and firm up. If you try to slice them before that time, they’ll crumble on you. I like to slice these guys long and slim, like the old school granola bars I used to eat as a kid. But you can certainly slice them into squares if you’d prefer. Remember that while they’ll hold together like a bar, they are quite soft, so they’re also great crumbled on top of your morning yogurt, which I’ve been loving lately. Or ice cream. You know, just in case you find yourself rejiggering in the evening as you search for something sweet at the end of the day.
These granola bars are soft, chewy and hefty – they feel homemade in the best possible way. As with most granola bar recipes, they’re infinitely adaptable, so feel free to use your favorite nuts and seeds instead of the ones I’ve used here — you just want to keep the proportions of wet and dry ingredients the same. It will be tempting to try a granola bar soon after they come out of the oven, but they really do need at least 3 hours to cool and firm up, so plan accordingly.
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Grease a 9×13 pan with a little coconut oil or your favorite cooking spray. Lay a folded sheet of parchment into the pan so its flaps hang over the edges (this makes it easy to lift the bars out when finished cooling), and grease the top of the parchment, too.
In a small saucepan over low heat, combine the honey, coconut oil and almond butter in a saucepan and heat to combine, stirring frequently. Remove from the heat, add the vanilla and stir well.
In a large bowl, mix together oats, millet, sunflower seeds, almonds, cashews, coconut flakes, salt and cinnamon.
Pour the warm liquid over the dry ingredients and mix well with a wooden spoon (or your hands, which I find easier). Make sure there aren’t any dry bits in the bowl — you want the wet mixture completely incorporated. With lightly greased hands or the back of a spatula, press the mixture very firmly into the prepared pan.
Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until the edges are a slightly darker shade of golden brown. The bars will still look about the same color and will feel soft to the touch, so you’ll likely think they aren’t done yet. They will firm up as they cool. Allow bars to cool for at least 3 hours. Slice and store in an airtight container. If you’d like, wrap individual bars in plastic wrap and freeze for up to six months (to thaw, take out of the freezer the night before you’d like to enjoy them and set on counter).
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.