Hello, January! I still hear people out on the street and in my exercise class wishing one another a happy New Year and it brings a smile to my face -- there's something about this time of year that feels truly hopeful. It's not so much about goals or resolutions for me (although it used to be); it's more about checking in with each other, wishing one another well and doing better by ourselves and for ourselves. I remember one of the things I loved about being pregnant was how often people asked me how I was feeling -- from my caregivers to friends, family, acquaintances, the woman making my coffee on my way to work. And they waited for a genuine answer. They seemed to really care. What a revelation! To check in with people in a very real way about how they're feeling! Let's keep it up for at least a few more weeks, shall we?
While I'm never one to rush things this time of year, in staring at my little desk calendar this morning, it's become clear that Thanksgiving is on the horizon. This year, we're hosting Sam's family again for what will be the second time, and I'm not going to lie: I don't feel any more organized or together after Round 1. Last year there was a lot of turkey talk and I panicked (in hindsight, irrationally so), admitted I had no clue what I was doing, and delegated the bird to Sam who really waited until the eleventh hour (i.e. Wednesday) to buy the turkey and we ended up having a roulade situation instead of a traditional roasted bird, which was all fine and good. I made pie and cranberries and mashed potatoes. I recall making a chicory salad but no one seems to remember it, so it clearly didn't make that big of an impression. Sam's sister Christa brought her famous stuffed mushrooms and his nephew, Kevin, brought wine. People were happy, so I was happy.
But it does seem that, regardless if you've been hosting for two years or twenty, there's this constant impetus to regroup and reimagine and somehow do it all better each year. And on one hand, I get that: all the food magazines come, each claiming to have the end all and be all in revamped stuffing or the newest trick to mashed potatoes and it's all ... a little exhausting, isn't it? What I crave isn't so much the newest, edgiest stuffing but more the gold standards that we pull out every year. Our family's classics. We don't have those yet, but we're working on it. If it were up to Sam, this simple fruit crisp would be a candidate for sure, and if you're someone who trembles at the thought of homemade pie, this is a stellar way to make life a little simpler this year.
We just got home from a long trip back East to visit both sides of our family and to see my youngest sister Zoe get married in a breezy outdoor ceremony in Vergennes, Vermont. We were gone almost three weeks total, which, towards the end started to feel like a really long time; I couldn't help but wonder if the leaves were turning on the tree across the street from our house or daydream about all the mail we'd have waiting for us (I'm a real fan girl of good and even quite marginal mail days). From the Adirondack mountains and Burlington, Vermont to New Brunswick, New Jersey, we were in planes, boats and cars on this trip and pretty far removed from our typical routines. And while I'm getting a lot better about going with the flow and letting unstructured days unfold as they will, having access to a few staples in the kitchen always makes me feel a bit more settled wherever we are.
In the first days after coming home from the hospital with Oliver, we got a few care packages from friends and neighbors. One was a box from my friend Anne in San Francisco with a handful of sweet little baby things and a batch of homemade breakfast cookies. They reminded me of the recipe from my cookbook and, because I was up at all odd hours of the day and night, they fueled me equally well at 3am and 3pm. The other box was from one of our neighbors: homemade chocolate chip cookies. In truth, they weren't even great cookies and normally I may not have even eaten them, but I cried with happiness every afternoon when I reached for one -- they were keeping us going.
Last month when I was in Los Angeles, I ate at a few vegetarian and vegan cafes with really interesting, inspired dishes (cauliflower grits! adzuki bean bacon!). I thought to myself, Man LA is creative. I never see this level of innovation in Seattle these days -- but then I had to remind myself that since having Oliver we rarely go out to eat (or at least, out of our neighborhood), so it's likely happening. We're just not witness to it (at the moment, anyway). I keep a little journal while traveling, jotting down ideas for recipes and the like, and while I thought I'd work on that adzuki bean bacon for you, I also wanted to write about something you could make in your kitchen tonight (or, at the very least, this weekend) that wouldn't be a big to-do. Something that would tease us all with hints of warmer weather and that wouldn't need much explanation or preface: a classic BLT sandwich with a vegetarian twist.
Depending on where you live, spring is or is not showing her face. She sure does seem to be a big tease this year, doesn't she? I remember late February last year walking around the UW campus admiring the cherry blossoms, and this year they're finally drooping and draping across streets and we're creeping our way through April. I've been on the hunt for local rhubarb and tender asparagus and it seems they're taking their sweet time, too. So in the meantime, thankfully, we've always got chocolate.
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.
And somehow, in the blink of an eye, it's the week before Christmas and we're racing around trying to fill cookie tins, pick up a few last minute gifts, make plans for our upcoming Bay Area visit (Oliver's first time to San Francisco!), string popcorn garland, and see as many friends as possible. While I tried to avoid it this year, the hustle and bustle is upon us and it looks like we're kind of succumbing to it -- everywhere, that is, except the kitchen: we're hosting Christmas dinner this weekend, and I've been really determined to keep things festive yet low key, special yet simple. So today I bring you one of my favorite appetizers of all time, lightened up a bit, made with a very doable ingredient list and tackled in under an hour. Oliver and Sam eat it by the spoonful and sneak bites of leftovers for breakfast. It's that good.
This past week I've been teaching a holiday gifts class at The Pantry, a cooking school here in Seattle. We've been spending each evening making butterscotch pudding, pâtes de fruit, fig and almond crackers and chocolate ginger cookies -- and while I've loved getting back in front of students again, I think my favorite part has been the very beginning where we introduce ourselves and share one holiday treat we like to make or eat: the room buzzes with talk of spiced pfeffernüsse, buttery cashew toffee and boozy rum balls. Growing up, my mom made Baked Alaska for dessert every Christmas Eve and I grew so accustomed to it that I was surprised when I went away to college and learned that no one had really heard of it. In fact, when my new boyfriend (now husband) Sam joined us a handful of years ago, he seemed utterly baffled by the meringue-topped boob of an ice cream dessert that we'd pour cognac over and light on fire. But it was always my mom’s thing (and until tonight, when I asked her about why she began making it, I hadn't realized that it was also my grandma Marge's thing). Zeke, my mom's former handyman (he passed away a few years back), would always bring over a cookie plate filled with truly awful cookies, but he decorated them himself with colorful sprinkles and included a few dog bones, and the gesture felt quite grand for a man in his 80's. Sam's mom makes these fragrant buttery cookies called Nutmeg Logs that we've started to bake as well, and our friend Molly often brings by a tin she and her mom make each year that includes peppermint bark and a jammy sandwich cookie. Maybe your family’s thing was something you really loved, and maybe it wasn't -- it seems that part isn't as important as the fact that it happened. And continued to happen. There's such a comfort in that repetition, and today those things that help ground us feel more important than ever.
After we cleaned the kitchen and put away all the platters, I made myself a cup of tea and thought about what could be done differently. This Thanksgiving was our first year actually cooking and hosting and honestly, for two longtime ex-vegetarians, preparing a turkey feels like a pretty major task. The week before, we had family in town for Oliver's first birthday party and between baking cupcakes, ordering helium balloons and thinking through a simple brunch menu for close to 50 people, I felt pretty spent as far as entertaining was concerned. So Sam took on all things turkey, and I made my cranberry sauce and pie Wednesday night. A good compromise. And yet, it still felt like a lot for some reason and I found myself pacing around the house throughout the day, deliberately staying out of the kitchen and wondering at what point in adulthood things feel more natural (if not actually seamless) when it comes to entertaining during the holidays.
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.
I always force myself to wait until after Halloween to start thinking much about holiday pies or, really, future holidays in general. But this year I cheated a bit, tempted heavily by the lure of a warmly-spiced sweet potato pie that I used to make back when I baked pies for a living in the Bay Area (way back when). We seem to always have sweet potatoes around as they're one of Oliver's favorite foods, and when I roast them for his lunch I've been wishing I could turn them into a silky pie instead. So the other day I reserved part of the sweet potatoes for me. For a pie that I've made hundreds of times in the past, this time reimagined with fragrant brown butter, sweetened solely with maple syrup, and baked into a flaky kamut crust. We haven't started talking about the Thanksgiving menu yet this year, but I know one thing for sure: this sweet potato pie will make an appearance.
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.
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.
Strolling New York City streets during the height of fall when all the leaves are changing and golden light glints off the brownstone windows. This is what I envisioned when I bought tickets to attend my cousin's September wedding earlier this month: Sam and I would extend the trip for a good day or two so we could experience a little bit of fall in the city. We'd finally eat at Prune and have scones and coffee at Buvette, as we always do. Sam wanted to take me to Russ and Daughters, and we'd try to sneak in a new bakery or ice cream shop for good measure. Well, as some of you likely know, my thinking on the weather was premature. New York City fall had yet to descend and, instead, we ambled around the city in a mix of humidity and rain. When we returned home I found myself excited about the crisp evening air, and the fact that the tree across the street had turned a rusty shade of amber. It was time to do a little baking.