Porridge is not the sexiest of breakfasts, it's true. It doesn't have a stylish name like strata or shakshuka, and it doesn't have perfectly domed tops like your favorite fruity muffin. It doesn't crumble into delightful bits like a good scone nor does it fall into buttery shards like a well-made croissant. But when you wake up and it's 17 degrees outside (as it has been, give or take a few, for the last week), there's nothing that satisfies like a bowl of porridge or oatmeal. It's warm and hearty and can be made sweet or savory with any number of toppings. The problem? Over the years, it's gotten a bad rap as gluey or gummy or just downright boring or dutiful -- and it's because not everyone knows the secrets to making a great pot of warm morning cereal. So let's talk porridge (also: my cookbook comes out this month! So let's take a peek inside, shall we?)
Lately I've been waking up like clockwork at 7:30, rolling out of bed and getting right to work. I'm up a good hour before Sam on most days, so I start the coffee and sit down at our breakfast nook and begin prioritizing emails. Some days I don't get up again until it's time for lunch (it's been a big month: more on that very soon), and work can really cloak the whole day in a way that can make it tough to differentiate a Tuesday from a Saturday. And then a book and a conversation can change that quite suddenly, too, and introduce a new morning routine. Even if just for a day or two. Such was the case with these whole-grain pancakes.
Here's the thing: working the farmers markets in the summer isn't all that bad. There are sun-kissed peaches, warm breezes and happy customers. There are sunflower-toting toddlers, sweet tomatoes and wily dogs. But let's say September hits and it starts raining in Seattle. Really raining. When this happens, there is a noticeable lack of peaches, warm breezes and happy customers -- all replaced, instead, with soaking wet tents, soggy bags of granola, and zero shoppers It's been that kind of a week. But thankfully, I've long had a big crush on fall and this year is proving to be no different. Despite the time I've had to work at the markets, the rain has actually been really nice. We bought some new bedroom furniture, I've been baking muffins and cooking fall soups, and FIGS. Hello, roasted figs. And hello, simple whole-grain breakfast parfaits.
A few months ago I went to a food writing conference in San Francisco and attended a session on managing to make good money as a cookbook author or freelance writer. It was a late night session and I hadn't had a chance to grab dinner (or lunch, for that matter), so my friend Sarah and I slurped down a quick bowl of tortilla soup at the lobby bar and jetted over to grab our seats. In addition to questions about payment and negotiation, the organizers asked us to confidentially rate our level of happiness in our field of work. During the session, I soon realized I was the only one who rated my happiness below an 8. My reason -- which I happily shared that night: it's lonely work. There are days when I don't see anyone besides Sam and the woman at the grocery check-out line. You'd think a nice antidote to this would be the work I do with Marge where I'm on my feet in a very physical production kitchen -- and it is. But I'm still the main baker and, until quite recently, I was alone in the kitchen. So I generally go from writing at home in my office to baking alone in a commercial kitchen. For a person who generally likes people and enjoys talking and sharing ideas and inspiration, I'm out of luck on both counts. But slowly, over the past few weeks, I've started to realize things are changing. For the better -- and for good, I think.
Spring has stumbled upon our doorstep. I know this for a fact because rhubarb has been popping up at the farmer's market two weeks in a row, and each time I visit I ask the vendors anxiously how long it'll be there. Four more weeks? Maybe five? Last year I bought so much that we ended up freezing quite a bit to use in pies, muffins and scones. I don't often have this stock-up mentality, but when it comes to rhubarb I find that it's fleeting and always disappears before I've had a chance to truly enjoy it. Fully.
In the airport bathroom, it seemed as though all the women were changing into sequined sandals and little knit shirts with white capris. I hadn't quite thought through the outfit change scenario -- the fact that the temperature when I left Seattle at 11 p.m. might be different than it is in St. Barths at 3 p.m. Driving to the villa, the roads were narrow and cars slapped against palm leaves and bougainvillea as they rounded tight corners. 70-year old women walked topless on the beaches and iced tea cost eight dollars. Dinners were always eaten out, and it was balmy enough to leave with a sundress on and nothing more. Meals consisted of polenta fries, citrusy shaved artichoke salad, Sea Bream with butter and lemon, tuna tartare with avocado cream and thinly sliced radishes, lobster fritters cloaked in spicy aioli, and warm chocolate cake. And wine. Lots of wine. And then, with morning: a reset button.
Last week I didn't write a blog post because we were in one of two places, both without Internet. First, it's likely we were on an Amtrak train headed to Essex, Montana. Second, it's even more likely that we were actually tucked away in the lodge of the mountain inn where we were staying. As you likely already know if you've been around here for some time, Sam loves trains. I mean really, really loves trains. He goes on a 2-week trip each year to explore different parts of the country -- to actually see and get a sense of the bigness of the miles going by. If flying desensitizes us to distance, Sam keeps that sensitivity warm with his preference for trains (and cars, and ships, and walking. Really. He's an evangelist on this point). So last week, we not only took a train to a rather remote Montana Inn, but stayed in a restored 1895 caboose-turned-cabin while there. Sam was in heaven, as you can imagine. I was too, thanks to the miles and miles of snowshoe trails and complete and utter lack of technology. And witnessing Sam in heaven. That does it for me, too.
I moved to Seattle last February so this January business is all new to me. I remember pulling into the city in the U-Haul we lovingly named Hugh on a sunny February afternoon. We were eager with anticipation and hope, schlepping everything into the house in tee-shirts with a few strong helpers and occasional mild cursing. Seattle really made a showing that day. I'm gathering that wasn't exactly typical, although I really do appreciate the gesture. This year the winter mornings have not been warm enough to encourage tee-shirts. They've been quiet, extremely cold but -- lately -- startlingly sunny. That bright light, despite the layer of ice on my car, has helped get me to yoga when I'd much rather stay inside nursing a cup of coffee. It's been enough to inspire me to send letters to old friends, organize all of my tax documents, make some pretty great oatmeal and take long winter walks with Sam. I'm not letting myself have the space or the moment or the luxury to miss those warm summer days that now seem like a distant memory. I know they'll come back (they will, right?). For now, there's just putting one foot in front of the other, getting my work done, and sneaking out in that light whenever it decides to make a showing.
I'm writing this post to you today on the porch of my mom's lakefront cabin in upstate, New York. In the past few years, this spot has come to mean summer to me. Sure, I've made many wonderful summer memories that dated far before my mom started coming here, but these days I feel like summer really starts on the porch here. Time slows. The daily itinerary involves morning coffee, porch-reading, dock-reading, and discussion of what to do for dinner. That's basically it. Sometimes this is punctuated by a swim or a run or a soft-serve ice cream cone. Or a long walk down the road. A most welcome change of pace from what our daily itinerary has looked like in Seattle recently (work, work, work, eat, work). Now we've arrived happily to the land of lingering.
There are moments when I'm truly happy we don't have cable. This week, a time that finds us amidst the Facebook fiasco, is one of them. Even without TV, I feel like I can't escape news of the IPO, stock prices, shareholder reactions, and future projections. But in last Sunday's paper I read something that caught my attention. Mark Zuckerberg's now wife, Priscilla Chan, made a request of him before moving in together: 100 minutes of alone time each week. And a vacation each year. My first reaction was one of mild shock: only 100 minutes?! I turned to Sam and told him about these agreements that are becoming more and more popular amongst couples -- the drive to tell each other what you need from the relationship. The New York Times compared it to kind of an emotional prenup. It all sounded a bit formal and calculated to me. Wasn't this depressing, I asked Sam? He glanced at me with a look that said that it really wasn't at all. In fact, at that very moment, we were having our version of 100 minutes.
If you had stopped by our house anytime in the last few weeks, you would've likely left with pumpkin madeleines, cranberry cake, half of a cheesecake, or a hearty slice of apple pie. Yes, just a few days ago I turned in a batch of recipes to a magazine I've been working with for their holiday issue. It has been an excessive few weeks in our kitchen but whenever possible, we've been bringing sweets to friends or down the street to the corner coffee shop (a.k.a. Sam's office). After I sent in the last of the recipes, it was time for some good, clean food. We went to the store a few night's ago and bought greens, yogurt, tuna, lentils, an avocado, peanut butter and a few other staples. We had soup for dinner; I had more for lunch the next day. After that much buttercream, it's time for a bit of simplicity.
We had a little housewarming party on Saturday. We bought beer and made spiced nuts and and stocked up on whiskey. That afternoon Sam baked homemade crackers and rushed around building recessed spice shelves. I roasted eggplant, baked a failed bundt cake, and bought far too much cheese. My sister Rachael came early with paper napkins and salami; my friend Tracy was in town from the Bay Area and swung by with her friend Joy; couples and singles and even baby Oliver came over to say hello. Some stayed for hours, some a few minutes. Regardless, it all felt like a pretty big deal. This was our house. Finally.
When you move someplace new, it's natural to compare it to the place you've just come from. It helps you sort of compartmentalize things and understand them. For example, when I first moved to Boston I'd notice people lining up for ice cream cones in the dead of winter. This was new and kind of odd, but also became one of the things that endeared the city to me. Here in Seattle there are a fair number of differences, too. For example: they do not have citrus at the farmers markets. I'm not sure why this still shocks me (it obviously doesn't grow here), but it does. People walk a lot. In the Bay Area, getting together with friends usually means meeting at a restaurant, cafe, or a bar. Here, it seems that people meet to walk. I've decided I kind of like this. And folks don't use umbrellas when it rains. I can't tell you why, but I assure you this is true. The nice thing about moving somewhere new is that these differences eventually become less apparent and just become the new landscape. I know this will happen soon enough. In the meantime, I buy lots of tangerines at the grocery store.
I've learned something about myself this week: I'm a neurotic packer. I don't think this is a new trait, I think I've just now come to realize it. I've been putting off the huge task of packing up this apartment but the time has come to get down to business. I started by packing things that I wouldn't really notice were gone: ski stuff, summer clothes, cookbooks I know I won't use over the next two weeks. Then I take those boxes and put them in the back of the closet so I don't have to look at them--this way, everything continues to look in perfect order. Just so.
I have a very full, spirited life. But sometimes when it comes down to the Christmas spirit it can be a little different. I can be a little tardy in this department. I always make it to the dance, but I can be fashionably late. Getting excited about Christmas can be funny when you're 32-- an in between time when, in my case, you're no longer a child but don't yet have children of your own. The magic doesn't descend upon you any longer. You have to keep your eyes peeled for it. You may even have to go and seek it out.
A few days after Thanksgiving, Sam and I found ourselves at Elmwood Cafe reading books and drinking giant soy mochas out of ceramic bowls. I'd been flipping through Lucky Peach magazine and the article On Perfect Moments caught my attention. In it, Daniel Patterson talks about searching for perfect moments and how they pop up when you least expect or plan for them. Since he's a chef, he frames the discussion in terms of cooking with fennel and how most cooks don't think to use the green fennel buds that haven't flowered yet. He says, "What appeals to me about these fennel buds is how they reflect this idea of paying attention, of recognizing perfect moments. Right now is the only moment that fennel plants will yield this particular flavor."
This past week was one in which I found out that one of my good friends is pregnant with her first child, and another friend and her partner just bought a new home and moved to Oakland. A friend across town had thrown out her back and another was just returning from a long trip, exhausted and jet-lagged. It was time to bake a little something. Something that was equal parts celebration (a baby!) and 'take it easy.' Something with ingredients I had on hand and that I wouldn't have to rush around to shop and prep for. Something like Harvest Apple Coffee Cake.
I went to hear Gabrielle Hamilton speak in downtown San Francisco Friday night. Now there's a lot one can say about her book Blood, Bones and Butter -- about what's in the book and about what's so clearly not in the book. About her difficult personal life, family dynamics, and road to becoming a chef. But what I'm always intrigued with when it comes to Hamilton are her thoughts on work and accepting, in a fierce and even deliberate manner, what it is you want to do. Regardless of what critics may have said, this is why I kind of dig her.
There are some things you don't question or plan for. They're the things that just happen, that unfold throughout the day or week or month. The things we don't always document or discuss because they don't really seem important enough, but that -- all the same -- so often bring us together in one way or another. Patterns or obsessions or phases. Late-night online shoe shopping. Permission to nap at odd hours. Spontaneous cell-phone photo exchanges. Maybe you can relate. Maybe lately you've been doing something similar. As you do. As we do.
I knew I'd be traveling to my mom's cabin in Upstate New York long before Sam and I started dating. But a few months ago, I couldn't stop thinking about how much I wanted to share this place with him. So I wrote a letter with my flight number and a few lines. Something to the effect of: Family is important to me. You’re important to me. I’d love for you to be here. A few weeks later—after having not seen each other for five weeks and after coming to terms with the fact that Sam was swamped with work and wouldn't be able to make it to the cabin —weeks that had started to feel like months as the reality of tight hand-holding, knee-cap cupping, and the sexiest neck on this side of the Mississippi became more of a memory than I was all that comfortable with, I too got an email with a flight number. It wasn't my flight number. The passenger’s name was Sam.
Last weekend my Dad turned 60. He decided to throw a party out in West Marin at Nick's Cove right on the Bay. They have a great rustic restaurant with awesome barbecued oysters, an amazing view and little cabins right on the water. My sisters flew in, friends were invited, meals were planned, booze was purchased, gifts were procured, speeches written, and toothbrushes were packed.
Well here we are: Thanksgiving week. I had a grand post planned for you today but I've come down with my annual 'could you come at a worse time?' cold, so it'll have to wait. Instead, we have something relatively short but sweet and perfect for those of you looking for a quick breakfast treat to whip up on Thanksgiving morning. These scones are from the Flour cookbook. You've heard me go on and on about Flour so I'll spare you today. But the book is genius. Put it on your Christmas list. Pronto.
I carved a pumpkin at my Dad's house on Halloween night. Yes, trick-or-treaters were arriving as we were slicing away. Better late than never. And pumpkin. I heard some ladies talking at the gym this week that they were "all pumpkin-ed out" (this was after the debate concerning the appropriate time to start applying to get your daughter into summer equestrian camp. Apparently it's quite competitive. These women are losing sleep over this). I've actually started to turn down my ipod at the gym; the conversations I overhear are serious fodder for future writing projects. You couldn't make this stuff up. But back to pumpkin. I, for one, am not all "pumpkin-ed out." In fact, this is the first time I've broken out the pumpkin this fall, and I'm sensing a trend here. I missed the boat on the sour cherries in late summer and never got around to canning tomatoes. And man the peaches were good this year in California--should've made jam. But enough with the "should haves." I'm not letting pumpkin slip through my grip. And I'm sharing these lightly spiced, super moist fall muffins with you today. Better late than never.
It's been awhile since I've written a 'sigh, I'm alone' post. And god, I thank you for sticking with me through those. In one sense it feels like just yesterday and in another it feels like it's been a decade. And I haven't written about it much because most days I'm doing pretty darn well. I have great friends, an amazingly supportive family, exciting writing jobs popping up left and right, and interests and passions that keep me busier than I'd like to be. But to have just a moment together here--a little bout of honesty--it sucks eating alone. I haven't gotten over this part of being single. I hate it. And as you can probably tell by now, I'm a big fan of eating. So we have a little problem on our hands.
I got an email from a reader last week that made me think. And then smile. She mentioned how she liked my blog because it was about food while simultaneously being nothing about food. The more I thought about it, the more I realized she's probably right. If you really just wanted a quick granola recipe, there are many other places you'd probably go first. But here we are. And it's late on Tuesday night and it kind of feels like fall rather than summer and my sixteen year old dog is snoring at my feet. I've made a fresh batch of granola for the morning, there's a giant mosquito buzzing around my desk that I can't seem to catch, I'm drinking lime fizzy water from a straw and wishing my sister a happy first day of work tomorrow. So, yeah. I like talking to you about baking and salads and homemade ice cream. But I also liked talking to you about books and yoga and how amazing afternoon naps are. About movies and wacky seasons and travels. And hopes and family and pretty dishes. All that. Hopefully you're down. I'm guessing since you're still reading this paragraph, maybe you are.
So my blog's birthday came and went. I was never the type of person to bake my blog a cake (although I think it's awesome that some of you do) but I have to say, I was surprised when I realized the other day that it's been just over a year since I started. How'd that happen? Birthdays are cool for a few reasons. First and most importantly, cake. Second, cards and family and friends and a check from your grandma. If you're a member of my family and you happen to be home at the time, you get to wear the beat up, pink glittery birthday crown. That thing's been around the block. Let me tell you. But the other cool think I notice as I get older is the element of reflection when birthdays roll around--thinking about the past year and how you want the next year to pan out. I began A Sweet Spoonful never having published a piece of writing but always wanting to. I started it late one night on a complete whim figuring at least it was one place where I'd see my work in print. Now, one year later, I'd call myself a writer. I started out with small local publications, peeing my pants with each acceptance letter and now you can occasionally find me in national rags and, if you flew Frontier this winter, you saw me in your trusty in-flight magazine. I talked about fried chicken and grits and all my friends who read it had a good chuckle.
Waffles. I don't make them often enough and I'm not sure why. Oh, wait: I am sure why. Because they always seem like kind of a slow, slumbery, Sunday thing to make and I rarely have those kind of mornings--even on Sundays. But I found a recipe I've fallen pretty hard for. It's an old-fashioned waffle recipe and you make the yeasted batter in advance, put it in the fridge for 12-24 hours, and it's ready to go in the morning. I've actually kept the batter in my fridge for a few days and just pull it out, put a scoop on the waffle iron, and have a warm waffle to take in the car on the way to work. Beats a granola bar or banana any day.
TEsting to see if this works and maybe it will and maybe it wont'.
I recently got The September Issue from Netflix--the documentary about Vogue editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour. It was fascinating on many levels but the thing that struck me the most was how unhappy she seemed. We all know how immensely driven and talented she is, but when she spoke of what her other siblings do for a living and what they think of her work, her eyes would gloss over and she'd become distant. When she spoke of her own work at the magazine, Anna mentioned that it often made her angry and agitated--that she'd know when to throw in the towel when she started getting angrier and angrier throughout the day. I don't know about you, but I may just settle for quiet, small-scale contentment rather than feeling that way day in and day out. So then I was running yesterday, and I started to think about a quote from the film Alice and Wonderland. In short, Alice hesitates to help the Mad Hatter in his resistance against the Red Queen. The Mad Hatter is disappointed, noting "You used to be much more muchier...you've lost your muchness." I smiled during this scene and continue to think about it. What does this even mean? What is this muchness? A state, a passion, a spark, a sense of wonder or confidence or fearlessness or comfort with the hear and now. I don't know. Now perhaps the larger question at hand is what does all of this have to do with Vogue and with blackberry cornmeal muffins for breakfast?
I lied. I promised an amazing morning recipe early this week and somehow I'm sitting here Thursday morning finally making it happen. My internet's been down, so I'm sitting at the coffee shop right down the street where I used to camp out before I had internet in the first place. It's kind of a nice change of scenery and pace from my living room (obviously). They make better coffee, there's buzz, there's bits of the paper strewn about, and pieces of conversation to eavesdrop in on. And this morning, there seems to be a steady stream of Phil Collins. Not sure what to say about that. But I am sure what to say about breakfast these days. Since I've been commuting to Marin, I don't have much time to have my typical breakfast of yogurt, granola, and honey. I can barely seem to get coffee and milk in my travel mug and get out the door on time. So I've started planning ahead a little with things I can grab and take with me. Homemade granola bars? Check. Bananas and those nice little pouches of peanut butter? Check. A damn fine English muffin. Check.