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.
When you move to a new city and move in with someone for the first time, routines are important. And establishing those routines takes a little while. I’m lucky to have fallen in love with a man that finds routine and ritual very, very important. I know not everyone is like this. So on Sundays for the past month now, we go to one of our favorite bakeries in Seattle and bring the paper. Sometimes we’ll go in the late morning, sometimes we don’t make it until an hour before they close. Sometimes we’re rushing to get the farmer’s market in as well or tearing ourselves away from the computer screen or the garden at a moment that seems completely non-conducive to quiet newspaper reading and croissant eating. Last Sunday was hectic with errands and new projects but Sam insisted we set aside just 45 minutes. It’s our thing.
We order coffees and a chocolate croissant to share (and often a few other sweets). One particular Sunday I may really dive into a meaty article while another morning will find me perusing the Style Section or reading Modern Love and people watching. There’s really no expectation or hope for the morning other than just showing up. Read a few paragraphs or a dozen pages — it doesn’t matter, but be there for that time with each other. It’s become how we do Sunday mornings.
The rest of the week? I’m guessing it probably looks a lot like your mornings. Kind of a harried dash to make coffee and get to work. I’m trying to get better about eating breakfast right away, but it’s usually a later mid-morning endeavor that consists lately of homemade yogurt, farmers market fruit, and toasted amaranth.
If you’re not familiar with amaranth, it’s much like quinoa, a seed that folks generally lump into the category of “whole grains.” It’s gluten-free and especially high in protein and calcium — if you stroll into any grocery store with a decent bulk section you’ll likely see it. As for how to use it, there are a few ways : first, soak it and cook it much like quinoa or millet to make a pilaf to serve with veggies and salads. It also makes a wonderful porridge when cooked with coconut milk. But my favorite way to cook amaranth is by toasting it in a hot skillet on the stovetop and sprinkling it over my yogurt or granola in the morning. The teeny tiny grains puff up much like mini popcorn. Try it. Then toss toasted amaranth on virtually anything: cereals, salads, soups, in smoothies. Maybe it’ll become your new thing — the way you do mornings. On days other than Sunday, I’m right there with you.
As for homemade yogurt, once you make it once, you’ll likely never buy it at the store again. It’s so simple, so much cheaper, and cuts down on all of those plastic containers. I recently bought a yogurt maker and am in love with it, but you can absolutely make yogurt without it, too. I’ll include instructions for both here. Just note that the yogurt will take anywhere from 9-14 hours so you don’t want to start yogurt on a day you actually want to enjoy it. Start it in the evening on a slow weekend and it’ll be all set mid-day on the next day. Sure, you have to think through the timing but that’s about the end of the thought involved.
O.k., I lied. You need to quickly consider your starter. Essentially yogurt is simply milk with added starter that’s kept in a warm place to culture. You can buy a powdered starter like this one online or at a well-stocked grocery store. Or just use store-bought yogurt as your starter. Both work just fine. Just make sure the yogurt you’re purchasing states that it has “live and active cultures” or lists them in the ingredient list. Now about that warm place? I’ve talked with many people who have had luck wrapping their jar of yogurt in a towel and placing it in a warm spot in the house. Our house is old and drafty, so I haven’t had luck with that; instead, I put mine in a little camping cooler alongside a couple jars of hot water. This creates a warm little nest that makes for happy, firm yogurt. The trick is to use as small of a cooler as possible — the larger the cooler, the harder it is to maintain a nice warm temperature.
For this recipe, feel free to use low-fat or fat-free milk if you’d prefer. I think whole milk yogurt just tastes better, so I call for it here. Soy milk generally doesn’t have active cultures, so it isn’t a good candidate. If you’re smart, you may decide to do a double batch of these roasted strawberries and use them later spooned over vanilla ice cream or ladled on top of a simple butter cake. Please note, I didn’t note prep times or cook time in this recipe as it will vary so much depending on how you decide to process your yogurt.
For the yogurt:
Read the back of your particular starter packet for quantity suggestions specific to that brand
For the roasted strawberries & amaranth:
1. Pour the milk into a heavy-bottomed medium saucepan and over low heat, bring the temperature up to 185 F. Don’t stir during this time.
2. Remove from heat and allow the temperature to drop to 115F. If you want to speed this process up, slightly submerge the saucepan in a sink filled with a few inches of cold water. If your soon-to-be yogurt develops a skin on top, skim it off with a spoon and discard.
3. Once the temperature reaches 115 F, add your starter (powdered starter or store-bought yogurt) and whisk quickly to combine.
4. Process your yogurt:
Yogurt Maker Method: Divvy the milk mixture into the small glass cups of your yogurt maker and follow the manufacturer’s instructions on processing. You can expect a general processing time of 7-9 hours here.After processing, refrigerate for 2 hours before enjoying.
The “Old Fashioned” Method: Gather 2-4 large glass mason jars (depending on the size of your cooler) with lids and fill two of them with very hot water. Screw on caps and place in cooler. These will help maintain a warm temperature in the cooler. In the remaining jar, pour in the milk mixture and screw on lid. Wrap the jar snugly in a towel, place in the small cooler, and close the lid. Taking care not to jostle the cooler, set in the warmest spot in the house. Check progress in 10 hours. On occasion, depending on temperature and starter, my yogurt has taken up to 14 hours using this method. Once firm, refrigerate for 2 hours before enjoying. Do note that the yogurt will firm up a little further in the refrigerator, so if it’s looser than you like it, don’t worry (and, see “Note on Yogurt Thickness” below).
Roast Strawberries & Toast Amaranth:
1. Line a baking sheet with parchment & set aside. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
2. Cut strawberries in half lengthwise. If they’re very large berries, you can quarter them instead.
3. In a medium-sized bowl, combine the honey, balsamic vinegar, maple syrup, olive oil, salt and pepper.
4. Add the strawberries and toss until they are fully coated.
5. Turn the berries out onto lined baking sheet and roast until the fruit has softened and the juices are just beginning to thicken, about 40 minutes.
6. To toast amaranth: Place a small, dry saucepan over high heat (don’t use a low-sided skillet as the amaranth will jump as they puff). Get the pan very hot before adding the amaranth; shake the pan continuously until most of the seeds have puffed up. If some of the seeds start turning a darker color — that’s o.k. Some are stubborn and don’t necessarily want to pop, so if you have a good mix of puffed and little-bit-darker amaranth, you’re in business. If you have extra, store in a little air-tight jar and use throughout the week.
Note on Yogurt Thickness: If your yogurt is too lose or you prefer a Greek-style yogurt, simply drain you homemade yogurt. Line a colander with cheesecloth or a very fine weave dishcloth and place it above a large bowl. Strain the yogurt. Either discard the liquid (whey) that strains away — alternatively, many folks cook with it. Scoop the remaining thicker yogurt into a bowl; enjoy.
Healthy Comfort Food
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.
I just finished washing out Oliver's lunchbox and laying it out to dry for the weekend. My favorite time of day is (finally) here: the quiet of the evening when I can actually talk to Sam about our day or sit and reflect on my own thoughts after the inevitable dance party or band practice that precedes the bedtime routine lately. Before becoming pregnant for the second time, I'd have had a glass of wine with the back door propped open right about now -- these days though, I have sparkling water or occasionally take a sip from one of Sam's hard ciders. Except now the back door's closed and we even turned on the heat for the first time yesterday. The racing to water the lawn and clean the grill have been replaced by cozier dinners at home and longer baths in the evening. You blink and it's the first day of fall.
I'd heard from many friends that buying a house wasn't for the faint of heart. But I always shrugged it off, figuring I probably kept better files or was more organized and, really, how hard could it be? Well, I've started (and stopped) writing this post a good fifteen times which may indicate something. BUT! First thing's first: we bought a house! I think! I'm pretty sure! We're still waiting for some tax transcripts to come through and barring any hiccough with that, we'll be moving out of our beloved craftsman in a few weeks and down the block to a great, brick Tudor house that we wanted the second we laid eyes on it. The only problem: it seemed everyone else in Seattle had also laid eyes on it, and wanted it equally as much. I'm not really sure why the homeowner chose us in the end. Our offer actually wasn't the highest, but apparently there were some issues with a few of them. We wrote a letter introducing ourselves and describing why we'd be the best candidates and why we were so drawn to the house; we have a really wonderful broker who pulled out all the stops, and after sifting through 10 offers and spending a number of hours deliberating, they ended up going with ours. We were at a friend's book event at the time when Sam showed me the text from our broker and I kind of just collapsed into his arms. We were both in ecstatic denial (wait, is this real?! Did we just buy a house?) and celebrated by getting chicken salad and potato salad from the neighborhood grocery store and eating it, dazed, on our living room floor. Potato salad never tasted so good.
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.
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?)