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).
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.