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.
We all tell ourselves we should unplug (myself included) and may even try to do it for a weekend and reflect on how we did. But I haven’t been in a situation in quite some time where I didn’t have any choice about the matter — where there was absolutely no cell access, no land line, no television, no Internet (I should say, there was spotty wireless access in the basement bar in the lodge, and I did sneak down there a few times to text family and put up a few Instagram photos). So the days went something like this: snowshoe, read, sit by the fire, repeat. We brought a few flasks of cocktails and nursed those in the evening. The days felt long and full.
For those of you who read this post about our first train trip, you’ll understand that there was a bit at stake with this second overnight train trip: could we do it? Would it even be enjoyable? Would we still like one another at the end of it? This was our train do-over, really, and I’m happy to report that it went famously. The trip from Seattle to Essex is a quick overnight ride: we boarded around 4:30 p.m. and by the time we woke up in the morning we were practically there. I couldn’t stop looking out the window in the early morning hours before breakfast. The landscape was winter encapsulated: craggy snow-covered mountains, abandoned barns, tiny little mountain towns with backyards that could each tell their own story. Their own long story.
When we got back to Seattle, Sam sent me a short opinion piece in The New York Times called The Quiet Ones. The subject of the piece is the “Quiet Car” that some Amtrak commuter trains maintain, a place for passengers to read, gaze out the window, write or just get away from their loud cell-phone-chatting seat mate. It is a car devoted solely to quiet. There is a mutual understanding that this must be followed and the conductor makes an announcement at the beginning of each trip to ensure that everyone understands.
After reading the piece, I became enamored with one of the last lines: “We’re a tribe, we quiet ones, we readers and thinkers and letter writers, we daydreamers and gazers out of windows.” This is how I started to feel in Montana after not too much time at all. Ironically, with the lack of connectedness I was experiencing without email or cell access, I felt more connected to other things that would usually go unnoticed in the day. I began to nod at our inn mates as I walked by, recognizing and acknowledging them for who they were: escapees from the modern world — even for just a day or two. We all listened for the trains and began to memorize their daily schedule, taking comfort in the regularity and reliability of the whistle in the train yard right below the cabins.
The day we left, there was a big group checking in that had been coming for 30 years straight. I’d heard the inn staff talking about them — apparently they’d rented out the entire second floor and the bar knew from experience to stock up on extra whiskey. They were rumored to be a rowdy bunch. Maybe the rowdiness set in after we departed because the only evidence of the group that I saw that day were a few older women who came to sit next to me by the fire to read. I was taking notes on a book I’d brought along and happened to drop my pen. Normally the noise would be nothing–you or I wouldn’t even notice it on an average day. But both women looked up, startled, and I found myself apologizing profusely. We all started laughing and began talking about how the quiet is just different in Montana. It settles in deep.
So while I have yet to experience The Quiet Car on an Amtrak train, I experienced our own piece of it this past week and loved every second of it. I’ve showed you a few photos here of energy bars and I must tell you: they didn’t make the trip. I’d had grand hopes of packing homemade snacks, but the hours before we left had me racing around to finish up too many last minute things (those never-ending lists!), so it simply didn’t happen. It’s too bad because, in hindsight, I have to say that these are very Montana-worthy bars. For now though, they’re very Wednesday morning-worthy bars and what’s been sustaining us through longer-than-usual afternoons as we catch up with work.
These bars were inspired by a collision of forces: Tracy made her own version of Lara Bars with dates that I’ve been eying ever since reading her post. Then my other friend Cheryl made a version using cocoa which, likewise, I couldn’t stop thinking about. Then I read about this Almond Joy Butter and decided it was time to come up with a no-bake energy bar recipe that utilized that very special marriage of flavors: coconut, almond and cocoa. Since I tend to try and eek whole grains into pretty much everything these days, these have oats and quinoa flakes stirred in at the very end and are sweetened solely with dates and just a swirl of honey.
I hope you have a most wonderful rest of the week — perhaps even claiming a seat in your own Quiet Car somewhere.
A few words on this simple recipe: I use Medjool dates for these bars because they’re pretty large in size and are super soft and sweet. If you see Deglet Noor dates at the store, they’ll work just fine, too. And if you’re not familiar with quinoa flakes, I buy them in a box from Ancient Harvest; they’re essentially quinoa that’s pressed down into really thin flakes so you can make a quick quinoa hot cereal in a matter of seconds, really. I don’t do that, but I do add the flakes to cookies, breads and bars for extra protein and a bit of texture. They’re pretty great; I hope you try them out in your own kitchen — I’m still experimenting with them, so we’re both a bit new to the game if you haven’t worked with them much. But here’s a good start: the bars that were meant for Montana but never quite made it.
Line an 8-inch square baking pan with enough parchment so that it hangs over each side. Place almonds and cashews in a food processor and process until both are ground well but not to the point where they’re too fine and sandy, about 20 seconds. Pour chopped nuts into a bowl and set aside.
Put dates in the food processor and process continuously for 1-2 minutes (depending on your dates), or until they begin to come together in one mass. Add coconut, oats, half of the chopped nut mixture, cacao powder, honey, coconut oil, cardamom, ginger and salt. Process just until the mixture comes together. It can have a tendency to all get stuck on one side of the food processor and you want to make sure the ingredients on the very bottom are getting incorporated too, so scoop the sides and bottom as necessary. You’ll process for about 3 minutes.
Turn the mixture into a medium bowl and add the quinoa flakes and other half of nut mixture. I use my hands here to knead the “dough” and thoroughly incorporate the flakes and nuts. The “dough” shouldn’t be fully uniform—you want to see little bits of nuts and grains.
Scoop into the prepared pan. Use your hands or the back of a spatula to press down and create an even, firm layer. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours (or freeze for 45 minutes if in a hurry) — this will help firm them up so you can cut them easily.
When ready to slice, lift the bars right out of the pan by grabbing onto the overhanging parchment paper. Cut into small squares (I usually opt for about a 2 by 3” size). Refrigerate in an airtight container for up to 7 days. Alternatively, wrap individually in plastic wrap and freeze for up to 3 months.
The Thanksgiving Table
Today is a different kind of day. Usually posts on this blog come about with the narrative and I manage to squeeze in a recipe. But sometimes when you really stumble upon a winning recipe, it speaks for itself. We'll likely make these beans for Thanksgiving this year. They're one of those simple stunners that you initially think couldn't be much of a thing. And then they come out of the oven all sweet and withered and flecked with herbs. You try one and you realize they are, in fact, a pretty big thing.
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.
It has begun. Talk of who is bringing what, where we'll buy the turkey, what kind of pies I'll make, early morning texts concerning brussels sprouts. There's no getting around it: Thanksgiving is on its way. And with it comes the inevitable reflecting back and thinking about what we're thankful for. And about traditions. The funny thing about traditions is that they exist because they've been around for a long time. Year after year after year. But then, one Thanksgiving maybe there's something new at the table.
I didn't expect green beans to bring up such a great discussion on traditions, sharing of poems and how a piece of writing can linger with you. So thank you for that. Your comments pointed out how important people and place are and how food takes the back seat when it comes right down to it. Even if you feel quite warm towards Thanksgiving and are looking forward to next week, reading about recipe suggestions and meal planning online and in magazines can start to feel tiresome right about now. Why? Because I suppose when it all comes down to it, in the big picture it doesn't matter what we all serve anyway. Next year, you likely won't remember one year's vegetable side dish from another. What you'll remember are the markers that dotted the year for you: whom you sat next to at the table, a toast or grace, and the sense of gratitude you felt for something -- large or small.
I got a text from my mom the other day that read: demerara sugar? I responded back with a question mark, not sure what she was referencing. It turns out she was experimenting with a new pie recipe that called for the natural sugar and wasn't sure why she couldn't just use white sugar as that's what she's always done in the past. A few days later we talked on the phone and she mentioned she'd let me take charge of the salad for Thanksgiving this year as long as there was no kale. No kale! And I wanted to do the mashed potatoes? Would they still be made with butter and milk? In short, we're always willing to mix things up in the Gordon household. Whether it's inspiration from a food magazine, friend or coworker, either my mom or one of my sisters will often have an idea for something new to try at the holiday table. But what I've slowly learned is that it can't really be that different: there must be pumpkin pie, the can of cranberry sauce is necessary even though not many people actually eat it, the onion casserole is non-negotiable, the salad can't be too out there, and the potatoes must be made with ample butter and milk. And while I was really scheming up an epic kale salad to make this year, there's a big part of me that gets it, too: if we change things too much we won't recognize the part of the day that comes to mean so much: the pure recognition. We take comfort in traditions because we recognize them -- because they're always there, year after year. And so today I present to you (mom, are you reading?): this year's Gordon family Thanksgiving salad.