On January 1, my sisters and mom texted our family chain asking what my word of the year would be. I'd loosely seen people talking about this idea online -- the practice of choosing just one word to help guide your intentions and actions -- but I hadn't given it much thought. Didn't really plan to, in fact; wasn't even sure I found it that compelling, except... I knew immediately what my word was: pause. I recall in years past scheming up long, ambitious lists of things I wanted to tackle. But this year? No such list. Not that I don't intend to do some tackling; I just want to carefully consider what those things might be.
Last weekend I taught a cooking class called Summer Whole Grain Bowls at The Pantry. It was a new class for me: new recipes, new flow, uncertain timing. A few days before the class I realized I was strangely dreading it, and I usually love teaching so I couldn't quite figure out why. Part of it certainly was that it was new material, but the other part came down to pure baby logistics. Oliver is still nursing so being away from him and prepping and teaching students for 5-6 hours ends up being stressful and, frankly, uncomfortable. To pull it off involves a partner who brings you the baby the second class is over as well as a baby patient enough to nurse in the back of a very hot car, balanced next to a box of cookbooks and a case of Le Croix. And then a mama who heads back indoors to prep for the next day's class. Let's just say Sam and I were happy to see Sunday evening roll around.
One year ago today we were sitting at Elliot Bay Book Company, my chest feeling immensely tight, awaiting word from our broker about an offer we put on a house. In a very competitive market, it turned out that we were the tenth offer; I knew ours wasn't the highest and that chances were slim. We'd spent a lot of time on a letter to the buyer and were just crossing our fingers that they might be the kind of people who would read such a letter and even like to envision a new family making a home there. But I also knew that money talks, and they'd likely choose the highest offer. During the reception for the book event, as I stood nervously sipping sparkling water, a text came through from our broker that they'd accepted our offer. The house was ours. I burst into tears and grabbed onto Sam and tried really, really hard not to take any of the attention away from our friend's lovely book. But THE HOUSE. We got THE HOUSE! In many ways, a year can go by so quickly. Every time the first of the month rolls around I always find myself thinking, where does the time go? (Or more like: It's time to pay our mortgage again?!) But in other ways, so much happens in a year. I'm sitting here now inside that very same house we'd talked and dreamed about, with the baby that we still referred to as Sprout and had yet to meet, now napping upstairs. And there are two nice men out back helping us with a small brick patio. Last summer I told myself that pregnant ladies can't do everything and the yard just lost the fight: neither of us had time to do much back there and we let it go. But this summer I'm determined to spend lots of time outside, eating cold noodle salads, reading a page or two of a book if Oliver lets me, and maybe even learning to sort-of use a grill.
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.
I've been thinking a lot about work lately, mainly because both Sam and I are beginning to fall behind with our own work and trying to figure out how to Balance It All with a baby and a family and a mortgage and dreams of cabining in distant sunny valleys. Ha! I have a few wonderful employees so while I was away on maternity leave, everything at Marge functioned just fine, leading me to start asking some bigger questions of myself: where should I put my energies and time? How can I get to a point where I feel like I'm doing work that really helps others and makes a difference? What's next for me? Many of us spend such large chunks of our days, weeks, and months at work that it makes sense to question some of these things. Are we doing good? Do we feel good? Are we being challenged, stimulated, excited? Right now, Sam and I are balancing childcare on our own: he spends two days of the work week with Oliver and I the other three. So the stakes feel higher for both of us; when I wake up and it's my workday, it feels like the clock is ticking and it's more important than ever to make it really count.
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.
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.
It's been a uniformly gray and rainy week in Seattle, and I'd planned on making a big pot of salmon chowder to have for the weekend, but then the new issue of Bon Appetit landed on my doorstep with that inviting "Pies for Dinner" cover, and I started to think about how long it's been since I made my very favorite recipe from my cookbook, Whole Grain Mornings. I'm often asked at book events which recipe I love most, and it's a tough one to answer because I have favorites for different moods or occasions, but I'd say that this savory tart is right up there. The cornmeal millet crust is one of my party tricks; when we need a quick brunch recipe, this is what I pull out of my back pocket because it's so simple and delicious. This is a no-roll, no fuss crust with a slightly sandy, crumbly texture thanks to the cornmeal, and a delightful crunch from the millet. In the past, I've used the crust and custard recipe as the base for any number of fillings: on The Kitchn last year, I did a version with greens and gruyere, and I teach cooking classes that often include a version heavy on local mushrooms and shallot. So if you are not keen on salmon or have some vegetables you're looking to use up this week, feel free to fold in whatever is inspiring you right now. Sometimes at this point in winter that can be hard, so hopefully this recipe may help a little.
January is a month of contradictions, from the highs of New Years Eve and the momentum of fresh starts and cleaner closets to the reality of dark winter days filled with putting away holiday decorations and getting tax paperwork ready. There's a noticeable lack of sugary cookies and far fewer twinkling lights. And during this month, I always find that my cooking becomes much more basic and stripped down, not for any of the more popular reasons (diets and cleanses), but more because I often look to our pantry to start really using up what we have on hand and trying to find vegetables that I'm inspired by at the farmers market. Lately we've been cooking up crisp fennel to add to wild rice or grain dishes, sautéing lots of mushrooms, and roasting potatoes. We've got red cabbage in the refrigerator and slice it thinly to make fish tacos once or twice a week, and hearty greens are always in heavy rotation. It's not as colorful as spring and summer produce, and sometimes it feels much more dutiful, but that's January for you: a month of pokes and prods to keep on your toes in the kitchen. Or, alternatively, to just sit down -- which is really nice, too. This recipe combines both of those sentiments: it uses a wonderful grain you may not be familiar with, but beyond that it's a very simple and satisfying recipe that won't take much time out of your short day and will leave you feel energized and ready to look ahead.
Morocco is a country full of color, noise, bustle. It's a vibrant, bold, beautiful country and just so happens to be the one place I've had a hard time explaining to people when they ask how our time there was. In many ways, it's different from most places I've traveled because there aren't a lot of definitive restaurants or cafes you 'must try' nor did we have a long list of tourist must-sees. Sure, in the cities we visited there are beautiful mosques and madrasas and gardens and museums -- and we saw many of them. But really, we spent most of our time in Morocco wandering, people watching, letting ourselves get lost within the markets and souks and streets. The answer to the question, 'what should we do today?' was usually met with the sentiment that we wanted to get out and just see it all. And despite all the ways that the days were frenetic and impossible to plan or predict, there were a few constants: the prayer call that would sound over loudspeakers on top of the minarets throughout the city a number of times a day, and a spicy bean and noodle soup that was often served with lunch or dinner.
Recipe for a warm, French lentil salad
We are in the thick of June now, aren't we? Seems so sudden but the neighbor kid across the street bounces his basketball at all hours of the day instead of just after school, and we've had a few real sundress afternoons in Seattle. I remember when summer used to be this broad expanse of what seemed like endless time. There were trips to the local library with my mom, outdoor sprinklers, mid-day naps and sleepovers that included spoonfuls of raw cookie dough with my best friend, Kristin. It obviously looks different now. There is a noticeable lack of mid-day naps and raw cookie dough, that's for sure. There are deadlines and work obligations, but at least they're often punctuated with sunny mornings, outdoor cocktails at our funky little picnic table, occasional gardening and quick camping trips.
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.
Harold is someone I've written about many times before, but not here. I wrote about Harold for my college entrance essay, for a graduate school speech, and even mentioned him in my book proposal last year. He's unassuming in appearance, but not in character -- you likely wouldn't look twice as you walked by him on the street. He's generous with his time and always up for helping when the cards are down. He has good taste in clothes, enjoys a great meal, and is always full of ideas for how to fill out a day just right. Before I boarded a plane for Ghana the summer of my junior year in college, I thought about Harold. When I got the jitters about leaving my friends and family to move to Seattle, I thought about Harold. The funny thing is, Harold isn't real (bear with me here. Really). He's a character from Harold and the Purple Crayon, a children's book my mom read to me as a little girl. About ten years ago, she gave me a copy for Christmas, and it sits on the bookshelf in my office today. If you're not familiar with the story, Harold's a young boy armed with a purple crayon and he thinks through what he'd like to surround himself with -- what he'd like his world to look like--and then simply draws it and it comes to be. Want a full moon tonight and a long evening walk? Harold breaks out the crayon. Care for a long slide to slide down on a sunny afternoon? Harold draws it. The idea behind the book and the charming character of Harold is that we can all create the day we wish to have, the month we really need, or the year we hope for if we use our purple crayons carefully and deliberately -- if we simply imagine how we'd like for it to look and set out to begin making it happen. So on New Years Day, I thought about Harold again. I thought about how I'd like this year to look for myself, for Sam and I, and for my business.
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.
This time of year always comes quietly. I call these weeks "bridge weeks": it's warm during the day and tomatoes and corn are still at the markets, but the light is a touch more golden and it's chilly enough in the mornings and evenings to grab your closest sweater. While fall is my favorite season, I find myself going inward a bit in September, wanting to experience the change of seasons without the Internet or TV forcing it upon me, or Starbucks announcing what seasonal drink I'd likely crave at any given time. We're fickle people, aren't we? One week eating stone fruits and discussing the dog days of summer and the next diving head-on into pumpkin breads and cookies. This is why I don't read many food blogs at the very beginning of fall because I'm not quite ready to jump right into pumpkin breads and cookies. Here at our house, there are still tomatoes to slice, warm walks to take, and backyard picnic table with my name on it.
We arrived in New Jersey late one morning last month in a little red rental car. We'd just come from a meandering drive from my mom's cabin in upstate New York, dotted with many stops in small towns to visit houses from Sam's childhood. Soon we found ourselves at Sam's mom's place in Mt. Holly, before us a feast of stuffed grape leaves and fattoush. This was the food Sam grew up on, and the food he's made for me a few times to show me as much. He makes tabbouli brimming with parsley and mint (we once had a tabbouli showdown in the middle of the produce aisle at Berkeley Bowl, me deeming him crazy for buying so much parsley, he deeming me crazy for the big bag of bulgar wheat I was clutching). This is his comfort food, the food he's made when we have dinner parties. The food that reminds him of home. Unlike Sam, I don't necessarily have one distinct type of food I ate growing up that's tied to my ethnicity or a distinct place, so all the talk that night of buying pita from The Phoenician Bakery and how long to steam grape leaves was not an experience I share with my parents or sisters.
There are many times when I feel like we're on the same page here. Maybe we chat about the change of seasons, or really good chocolate, or a book I'm reading that you've also heard of. Maybe we talk about summer travel plans, or cherry blossom trees, or how to balance work and life in a relatively sane way. But I have a hunch that we're not on the same page with what I want to talk about here today. I'm willing to guess that, for most of you, you're far beyond me on this one. It's true: unbeknownst to me, I've been left terribly behind. This thing I speak of? Gardening. Or the backyard in general. Really, let's be honest: I'm talking about plain and simple yard work.
There are those Sundays when you get started slowly, and feel a little antsy actually sitting and reading the paper so you decide to go on a really long run. You come home to a Sam in the kitchen meticulously chopping cabbage and green onion, boiling eggs and catching up with his mom on the phone. Suddenly, you're no longer antsy. The sun is out and it feels like the best, slowest kind of Sunday.
I didn't know this until last week, but Seattle has a way of gripping you in the fall. Sure, our leaves change in the Bay Area, and the light basks down glowingly in the afternoons and evenings in a much different way than it does in the summer. We get golds and touches of amber. Because I went to graduate school on the East Coast, I'm used to boldly-hued falls, but in Seattle the colors are more muted and in this way maybe even more beautiful. The air is brisk and crisp and you need to break out your coat. A scarf would be good, too. You may want to even leave the heat on overnight or turn it on the second you patter out of bed to take the chill off.
First things first: thank you so, so much for all of your amazing solo-eating suggestions, and cooking-for-one book suggestions! I'm overwhelmed by your comments and emails...and dinner ideas. Where to begin? Grilled cheese, pasta with bacon, scrambled eggs for dinner...Yes, please. The majority of the advice I've gotten from family, friends, and you all here is that time continues on whether you like it or not. It just does. And through that, things get easier. I'm trusting you on this one. I just finished re-reading The Hours a few nights ago. Have you read it? I think Michael Cunningham captures the intricacies of character, relationships and moments really beautifully. Towards the end of the novel, I found myself rereading this passage over and over: "We live our lives, do whatever we do, and then we sleep--it's as simple and ordinary as that. A few jump out of windows or drown themselves or take pills; more die by accident; and most of us, the vast majority, are slowly devoured by some disease, or if we're fortunate, by time itself. There's just this for consolation: an hour here or there when our lives seem, against all odds and expectations, to burst open and give us everything we've ever imagined, though everyone but children (and perhaps even they) knows these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult. Still we cherish the city, the morning; we hope, more than anything, for more." To me, this paragraph--in so few words--speaks to the human condition more than anything I've ever read. It's hard. We lose friends and relationships and have difficulty finding our calling or our life's passion. But then there are evenings when you look around the table at friends you haven't seen for ten years and smile, or you bite into the perfectly crisp apple--or those mornings when a hot shower feels like a gift from the Gods. Those are the simple, ordinary moments that give us a gleam that hope is justified. So along with all of your fabulous meal suggestions, I'm going to seek out these moments like nothing else right now--the hours that give a glint (or a full on beam) of hope and light. And spring, sunshine in San Francisco, and asparagus in the markets helps, too. So onward, shall we?
Some of you have very sweetly written me to ask how I'm doing after this post. Truthfully, it's day by day. This Thursday is the first day that I'll be living alone...for the first time in my entire life (with the exception of a very brief period in Boston that didn't work out all that famously). Yep, and I'm 31. When you've been with someone as long as we have been together, it's just the way it's always been. So I have days where I'm excited to rearrange the furniture, and I have a lot of days where I'm really anxious and worried. I bite my nails, watch bad late night TV, and eat strawberry jam out of the jar. Today's been one of those days. I've discovered days off from work aren't necessarily great for me--there's a little too much time to think and be in my own head. It's important to stay busy. But the more I try and figure out what it is I'm so worried about, the more I realize it's really just the unknown. It's not knowing how I'll feel next week or this summer or who I'll go to first with exciting news or wake up in the middle of the night with a terrifying dream. So I'm trying really hard to just sit with that. Sit with the unknown and try and not figure it all out this second. Because I can't. And I'm guessing it's not ready to be all figured out.
We've all done it. You get home from work and you're basically ravenous. You can't be bothered with setting an actual place for yourself. You grab a few nuts, pour a glass of wine, break out the leftovers, and go to town. Or if you're me last night, it goes a little something like this: You spend the late afternoon making and photographing a beautiful dish of warm grains and cabbage and time's ticking away. You're meeting Katie, your old high school friend, for drinks so you rush out the door. You're wearing a pretty, flowy scarf and feeling a little like you can take on the world as you're strolling down Divisadero towards your favorite neighborhood bar. You catch up. You laugh. You cry a little. You envy the fact that your friend has a real job (yay, Katie!). You drink maybe one more than you should considering the fact that you haven't eaten since 11 a.m. Then you get home, pull your hair up into a high bun, break out the boxer shorts, and to the fridge you go. You find yourself sitting in a dark, quiet kitchen lit only by the security light from the building next door--tipsy and grateful for such an amazingly nourishing salad.