Last weekend I had the chance to get away to Portland by myself — actually, Sam came on Friday night and we went out to dinner to celebrate my birthday, but I drove him to the train station late Saturday morning and returned to my Airbnb to … take a very long nap. Friends who I talk to ask what I did in Portland, excitedly hoping for the best restaurant recommendation or shopping find. And I did a little of that for sure, but I spent half the time right on that Airbnb couch reading an entire book (!!), making myself almond milk hot chocolates, and brainstorming new creative projects.
When I sold Marge, Sam and I talked about me getting away somewhere to celebrate and mark the occasion. I’d had LA in mind, but the timing collided with the holidays and family visits and birthday parties and what not, so it just never happened. Portland seemed more immediately doable, and I’ve been wanting to check out Tusk for a long time (so good if you have the chance to go!). I’d wanted to check out a few places for a long time, and did – I had some fancy avocado toast and great coffee at Proud Mary, some more great coffee and Turkish eggs at Upper Left Roasters, ramen at Marukin, a drinking chocolate at Cacao before hitting the road – but the Portland I most needed, it seems, was in the downtime.
In Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost (a favorite of Sam’s), she quotes Meno asking, “How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?”
When I drove Sam to the train station on Saturday, he told me to try and let myself get bored at some point over the weekend: that’s when the real relaxation starts to kick in. When you have a toddler at home, it’s a rare opportunity to get away for three days solo just for the heck of it, and Sam was really hoping I’d get to clear my head, maybe think of a second book or future project. Of course, the stakes feel a bit high when you sit down at the table, telling yourself you only have two days to figure out your next book proposal, wondering why inspiration isn’t flowing as it should (Which is why I mitigated some of that anxiety with a good dose of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel).
But I did follow Sam’s overall advice and let myself get bored. I read more than I have in months (Little Fires Everywhere is great), challenged myself to eat out alone (not my strength for some reason), and had a chance to journal a bit and think through some ideas. No, I don’t have a book proposal. I don’t even have the most solid of book proposal ideas, really, or even the certainty that a book is the best move right now. But I did return feeling reenergized and eager to get into the kitchen and cook — something I haven’t really felt since the holidays. And I have a hunch that feeling reenergized in little pockets of life — like the daily act of cooking — will eventually lead to feeling new inspiration in other areas, too.
Most of you know the blog Smitten Kitchen, and turn to Deb’s recipes for great, approachable comfort food and meals you want to make right this second. You could say the same for her newest book Smitten Kitchen Every Day : I’ve bookmarked it heavily and appreciate her low-stress approach to cooking even more now that we have a kiddo in the mix. If you struggle with weeknight dinners like we do, this book is a must-grab.
This wild mushroom shepherd’s pie is a revamp of a classic my mom used to make for us growing up (hers was a ketchup-laced ground beef, frozen corn and mashed potato affair). In Deb’s vegetarian iteration, the fresh mushrooms are cooked down in a thick, savory sauce thanks to rehydrated porcini mushrooms, dried sherry, tomato paste and thyme (my contribution) and the whole thing is cloaked in a buttery layer of mashed potatoes and parsnips (also my contribution as we had a lonely one in the fridge). The perfect food for the first day of February, no?
This hearty recipe feeds 6 very hungry adults or 8 moderately hungry adults; round it out nicely with a simple green salad. While Deb uses all russet potatoes for the topping, I used half parsnips and half potatoes: parsnips have an earthy, slightly sweet flavor that works really well here. As for mushrooms, I used a mix of portobello, cremini and oyster, but using most (or all) cremini will work just fine.
Recipe ever so slightly adapted from: Smitten Kitchen Every Day
Prepare the mushrooms: In a small bowl, combine the dried mushrooms and boiling water. Set aside for 30 minutes (while you continue with the other steps), then drain, reserving the soaking water, and chop the rehydrated mushrooms into small bits. If the soaking water has any sand or grit at the bottom, pour it through a fine-mesh strainer.
Prepare the lid: Place the potatoes and parsnips in a medium pot, and cover them with a couple inches of salted water. Bring to a boil, and then simmer over medium heat for 12-15 minutes, until both are easily pierced in the center with a knife. Drain, scoop into a bowl and mash with a fork or potato masher. Add the butter, salt and pepper and stir. Add the crème fraîche and milk and stir to combine. If the potato mixture is thicker than you’d like and would be difficult to spread, add more milk, 1 tablespoon at a time. Taste and adjust the seasoning as needed.
Heat the oven to 400 F.
Cook the vegetables: In a large pan (4-quart, or an 11-inch deep skillet or braiser) heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion, carrots, pinch of salt and pepper, and sauté until the vegetables begin to brown ever so slightly, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute more. Add the fresh mushrooms, a pinch of salt, fresh thyme, and increase the heat to high, cooking the mushrooms until they brown and soften, releasing their juices, about 5-10 minutes.
Add the sherry and scrape up any stuck bits. Add the tomato paste, and stir to combine. Add the rehydrated mushrooms and their liquid, plus the stock (start with 1/2 cup stock and add more if mixture seems to dry). Simmer over medium heat for 10 minutes, or until mushrooms are coated in a thick sauce. Taste and season with additional salt and pepper if desired.
Bake the pie: In an oven-safe 2-3 quart baking dish, scoop the mushrooms into an even layer. Top with potato mixture, using the back of your spoon to spread it evenly over the top, all the way to the edges to form a seal. Bake for 25-30 minutes, until lightly browned on top. Garnish with additional thyme and parsley, if desired.
Do ahead: The shepherd’s pot pie keeps for 5 days in the fridge and longer in the freezer. Rewarm in a 350 degree oven for 20 to 25 minutes.
**Note: Deb calls for 1 cup of stock but I found that my mixture really only needed 1/2 cup as the mushrooms released quite a bit of liquid. I’d start conservatively with 1/2 cup and if the mixture needs more, add a little at a time: you want the filling to be saucy but not soupy/overly wet.
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.