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.
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?)