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.
Winter Comfort Food
I intended on baking holiday cookies to share with you today, but when I sat down to brainstorm all I could think about, truly, was the morning porridge I've been making and how that's really what I wanted to send you away with. The holiday season always seems to zoom on by at its own clip with little regard for how most of us wish it would just slow down, and this year feels like no exception. We got our tree last week and I've been making a point to sit in the living room and admire the twinkle as much as possible. I have lofty goals of snowflakes and gingerbread men and stringing cranberries and popcorn, but I'm also trying to get comfortable with the fact that everything may not get done, and that sitting amongst the twinkle is really the most important. That and a warm breakfast before the day spins into gear. This multi-grain porridge has proved to be a saving grace on busy weekday mornings, and it reheats beautifully so I've been making a big pot and bringing it to work with some extra chopped almonds and fresh pomegranate seeds. While cookies are certainly on the horizon, I think I'll have this recipe to thank for getting us through the busy days ahead.
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).
If I asked you about what you like to cook at home when the week gets busy, I'm willing to bet it might be something simple. While there are countless websites and blogs and innumerable resources to find any kind of recipe we may crave, it's often the simple, repetitive dishes that we've either grown up with or come to love that call to us when cooking (or life in general) seems overwhelming or when we're feeling depleted. While my go-to is typically breakfast burritos or whole grain bowls, this Curried Cauliflower Couscous with Chickpeas and Chard would make one very fine, very doable house meal on rotation. The adaptations are endless, and its made from largely pantry ingredients. I never thought I'd hop on the cauliflower "rice" bandwagon, but I have to say after making it a few times, I get the hype.
People describe raising young kids as a particular season in life. I hadn't heard this until we had a baby, but it brought me a lot of comfort when I'd start to let my mind wander, late at night between feedings, to fears that we'd never travel internationally again or have a sit-down meal in our dining room. Would I ever eat a cardamom bun in Sweden? Soak in Iceland? I loved the heck out of our tiny Oliver, but man what had we done?! Friends would swoop in and reassure us that this was just a season, a blip in the big picture of it all. They promised we'd likely not even remember walking around the house in circles singing made-up songs while eating freezer burritos at odd hours of the day (or night). And it's true.
Oliver is turning two next month, and those all-encompassing baby days feel like a different time, a different Us. In many ways, dare I say it, Toddlerhood actually feels a bit harder. Lately Oliver has become extremely opinionated about what he will and will not wear -- and he enforces these opinions with fervor. Don't get near the kid with a button-down shirt. This week at least. He's obsessed with his rain boots and if it were up to him, he'd keep them on at all times, especially during meals. He insists on ketchup with everything (I created a damn monster), has learned the word "trash" and insists on throwing found items away on his own that really, truly are not trash. I came to pick him up from daycare the other day and he was randomly wearing a bike helmet -- his teacher mentioned he'd had it on most of the day and really, really didn't want to take it off. The kid has FEELINGS. I love that about him, and wouldn't want it any other way. But, man it's also exhausting.
We recently had our favorite day of married life yet. When I tell you what it consisted of, you may worry or chuckle. Sundays used to be sacred in our house in the sense that it was our one day off together. We'd often read the paper, get a slice of quiche at Cafe Besalu, or take walks around Greenlake or Discovery Park. But now Sundays are generally when I work the farmers market for Marge Granola, and Sam helps me set up and take down each week, so they've taken on a very different feel, one more of work than leisure. So a few months ago, after mildly panicking that we no longer had any routines or days off, we reclaimed Saturdays as 'the new Sunday' and last weekend set the bar pretty high. The day began really cold: in the high 20's and graduated, eventually, to the 30's. We decided it'd be nice to just stay inside; Sam had a little work to do and some letters to write. He had a few articles he'd been wanting to read. And I'd been thinking about this lasagna recipe, so I puttered around the kitchen roasting squash and slicing garlic. The afternoon ticked on slowly. Sam made us baked eggs for a late lunch and I tried unsuccessfully to nap. I think it was the calmest we'd both felt in a long time. I'm lucky to have found a man who loves spending time at home as much as I do. While we both love going out to see friends, traveling, and having people over to our place, we also gain the most, I'd say, by doing simple things around the house -- straightening up, making a meal. organizing records or books or photos. Especially in this season of cold temperatures and early-darkening skies, it's what I crave the most. And last Saturday closed in the best of ways: we opened a bottle of "wedding wine" (thanks to my neurosis and fear we'd run out, we over-ordered wine when planning for our wedding) and dug into generous slices of this very special vegetarian lasagna, a hearty layered affair with caramelized onions, a sage-flecked tofu ricotta and a simple, savory butternut squash purée.