A Stab At Quiet
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.
Cocoa Almond Grain Bars
- Yield: 9 bars (or 12 very small squares)
- Prep time:15mins
- Inactive time:2hrs
- Total time:2hrs15mins
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
Thai Carrot, Coconut and Cauliflower Soup
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.
Cheesy Quinoa Cauliflower Bake
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.
Stuffed Shells with Fennel and Radicchio
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.
Smoky Butternut Squash and Three Bean Chili
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.
To Talk Porridge
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?)
i loved that piece in the Times when it came out. It's how I always felt about quiet cars when we go to Boston and back. It's nice to just be quiet and still. Love this recipes - will have to make it soon! Beautiful photos - looks like you had a great trip!
Thanks so much, Olga! Yes, I really haven't yet been in a Quiet Car (just read about them) ... but love the idea! Hope your week's been great, ~m
That piece resonated with me too. As does quiet, and most especially Montana. The lack of mobile/internet connectivity wasn't what made me fall in love with Glacier, but it's part of what keeps me going back. I love experiencing that, and it's so bizarre that we have to go to such remote places to completely disconnect like that. This post makes my heart ache a little, in a good way! Love that state so hard. And these are exactly what I'd bring if I were making snacks beforehand.
Kimberly-I thought of you a lot while we were there ... what a stunner of a state that is, eh? Man. I want to see it in the summer ... may have to plan another jaunt back.
hi megan! I've never commented before, though I've read your blog for a while and love it. anyway I have a huge grin on my face and a certain gratitude at finding someone in a similar boat (or train, as the case may be)...my wonderful boyfriend is a train guy himself, and he took me to to essex and the walton inn last july. just as you say, it is a beautiful place (I can't wait to go back in the winter!) and while I do not share his enthusiasm for trains (which were the whole purpose of our trip to montana...I have to fight to get a single non-train-themed vacation each year!), it is so peaceful and beautiful there that I had an amazing time as well. if you go back in the summer, during huckleberry season, the restaurant puts huckleberries in just about everything, including some delicious cocktails and baked goods--highly recommended. anyway I just felt compelled to comment on this lovely post, and to convey my excitement at finding another significant other of a train buff! :) we just got home from a weekend in truckee (trains going over donner pass and through downtown included), and experienced a similar (though less intense) feeling of isolation and unplugging. highly recommended.
Hi, Sarah! So great to hear from you + thanks so much for taking the time to leave a comment. It does, indeed, sound like we have a bit in common. Yes, I've been trying to get a trip to New Orleans in and Sam really wants to go by train, and I've started to note how we'd have a few more days IN New Orleans if we flew this time. We shall see! I'm very familiar with that Truckee line. My family has a little cabin in King's Beach (about 20 minutes from Truckee), so we often head into town a few times each summer. There's a great new-ish burger spot and a really good omelette place, too (Squeeze In, I think?). It is so nice and quiet this time of year -- you're right. And you cracked me up about the huckleberries: they must freeze them because they were alive and well in the winter, too! They were in everything, it seemed + all sorts of huckleberry things in the gift shop, too. Very funny. Nice to hear from you and I hope you have a great weekend, ~m
The trip sounds fantastic, Megan! I think Sam has the right idea: over the years, I've developed a strong affinity for train travel, and I swear by the quiet car (usually the 2nd car on the train). I tend to use my phone less and look out the window more - highly suggested!
Oh, and the bars don't look half bad either! :)
Jeb! Is it true that you and Sam have never met? We have to fix that one of these days. Yes, we both talked and realized The Quiet Car must be more common on commuter cars back East as I've yet to see one (and I believe Sam hasn't either). Cool that you've checked it out. Hope you're surviving the winter (looks like you guys have been getting more sun than we have, actually)!
Amanda @ Once Upon a Recipe
I love bars like these. So dense and packed with energy! Sounds like you had a lovely trip. I think we all need more quiet moments like the ones you experienced in Montana.
Thanks for the sweet comment, Amanda. Hope you're having a great week, ~m
A Chow Life
I absolutely love train travel. Kirk and I traveled by train through India. It was incredible if not totally unpredictable and crazy at times. We loved it. I've also taken Maeve on the train to Portland and she loves it too! I'm glad you were able to enjoy the peace. You deserve it! Let's meet up someday soon in real life. I'd love to try a yummy bar! xo
Hi, Robin. I have yet to do the train to Portland but I've heard it's great (and inexpensive these days!) I'd love to meet up in real life. Absolutely. Let's make that happen!
Casey@Good. Food. Stories.
I am so jealous of your train adventures! Dan and I still haven't managed one... NO, our commute into NYC doesn't count.
Casey: Three words: Amtrak to Springsteen! That would be Dan's dream (and Sam's), eh?
That looks like a wonderful trip! Some people I knew from church took a train trip from WI to Glacier in Montana. I really want to take that trip. I haven't ever been on any trains so that would be an awesome trip.
We took our kids on an Amtrak ride from San Jose to LA a few years ago. It was definitely an adventure. I think we were the youngest people on the train by about 80 years. I'm so glad we did it, though (once).
You make me want to go to Montana something awful.
Your variation on my variation on Tracy's variation on LaraBars looks lovely. Isn't cooking grand? xo
Oh, indeed, Cheryl. We were the youngest people in the sleeping wing of the train by a good 40 years (well, there was a 5-year old daughter with her Dad so I guess she wins out). And we noticed we were the youngest people at the inn, too. Perhaps people our age choose Hawaii instead of a remote mountain inn? Regardless, it was great and I think you guys would like it. And thanks for the bar inspiration. xox!
Looks like a wonderful place for we thinkers..
What can I substitute for the coconut oil?
Thanks, Aunt V. Use melted butter instead. Good question -- I'll add to the recipe notes, too.
That line you quoted is so good. I love the thought of the lot of us--the dreamers, thinkers, lookers-out-of-windows--are a tribe, all around the world, taking things in. I also love your photos! Meg! What a dream you make Montana seem to be! So glad you had a good trip and glad to get to share it here.
Shanna: thank you for your photo comments, friends. You guys should visit! I hear the summer is supposed to be absolutely amazing there ...
I love the photos (especially the one of Sam just having thrown a snowball, with the snowdust drifting in front of him.) I also love that you included a picture of you - faces are so rarely seen on food blogs for some reason! My father's from Montana and some of my happiest memories took place there. As for the silence, I too am a member of that tribe. Thanks for writing so beautifully.
Wow, those pictures of the snowy landscape are so beautiful...I wish I could take a train trip cross-country; it sounds absolutely fabulous.
Loved your message and the pictures Megan! I hope when I retire in one year that I can do some train travel and I will always be looking for the "quiet car". They do that on Philly commutes I understand.I am never totally "plugged in" but I appreciate some technology, especially this forum so that I can read about your trips and fantastic recipes. I am proud of you! As I get older I want to save my internal battery power for nature and new adventures. Great recipe! Can't wait to try it.
Love Aunt Kim
The idea of this is so dreamy - though I am totally enjoying the amazing weather in the Bay Area right now, I am also longing for snow! I've also never been to Montana and would love to go someday ... your pix will have to suffice for now. Happily will be in Yosemite later in Feb. to get my 'real' winter fix and can't wait. Driving though - maybe will save the train for another time :)
N: Can you believe I've never been to Yosemite?! Argh! I don't know what is wrong with me ... but it'll be wonderful in February, I imagine. And hopefully free of so many of the crowds. Yes, I have a hunch you'd like Montana. No running in the winter, but we did some pretty speedy showshoeing. Have a great weekend + enjoy the sun down there (sign), M
Welcome back dear friend, your photos are simply amazing. Montana (and Wyoming) are the epitome of what the "Wild West" means in my mind. Remote, wild, untouched, barely a soul to be seen for miles. So glad you guys had a great trip, those cocktail flasks are a great idea!
Love the article - I am so happy to see I am not the only one annoyed about having to listen to someone's sad love stories from the next table when we're dining out ;)
Paula @ Vintage Kitchen
I´m a train lover too, big time. I travelled by train a lot growing up and every time I´m in DC I try to take the train to NYC. Love it, it´s a totally different experience! Your first post about the 4 day train journey made me start planning for a trip this or next year.
And I just bought some medjool dates with no specific idea, but I couldn´t resist them. These bars are gorgeous!
That's so great, Paula. Glad you all are planning another trip -- and it sounds like these bars are in your future, too. Have a great weekend, ~m
I want to live in the quiet car! Seriously, if we could put a quiet room in our house, I would do it in a heartbeat. I am that person, the reader and looker-out-of-windows disguised as a 21st century social media savvy woman. It gets tiring sometimes. Glad you guys had a train re-do and that it was a success. I glanced at the title of the recipe and thought it said Cocoa Almond Train Bars. :)
I remember that article and thought what a brilliant idea! Admittedly, because I'm not a driver, always a passenger, I tend to either just be absorbed in my book or magazine, or be mesmerized by the drive-by images of the streets and highways--I've learned to zone out in the midst of the bustle. One day I'll get on one of those quiet trains and convince the beau to fully unplug. :)
perfect use for the flakes! they look so perfect and an ideal travel snack. I'm inspired by this and excited to read the NY Times piece. I have felt a bit drained lately by the noise that I undoubtedly create myself. I keep saying I need a break then fill a day off with dates and errands and this and that. Your trip sounds so perfect, glad it went so well for you guys. No bathroom stand off or meal strikes ;) Love it.
What would happen if you left out the coconut (which unfortunately, I am allergic to)? Or what could you substitute? I can't wait to try these bars.
Patricia-I think it'd be just fine if you left it out, actually. They add a little flavor, but they shouldn't much affect the texture. Enjoy the bars!
Your sweet is as sweet as the post. The 'quiet" quote resonated and I shall be referring to it again and again. Even the photos evoked quiet. And there is such a gentle reminder that it has been far too long since I set foot in Montana.
Confession: I normally glaze over photos and go straight for the words.This time I couldn't help but stop and stare,and then scroll back and stare again. It's summer here in Australia, and exactly the opposite in appearance and feel. These are just amazing photos of what I'm sure is a breathtaking area.
Also- love the recipe!
I love your blog! You express your thoughts so wonderfully and make me wish I was along side of you on your great adventures, as well as sitting down to your table for the food you make. Mostly, I really wish I was in that Quiet Car right now...
Thanks so much, Colleen. I'm so happy you're enjoying the blog. Have a great rest of the week, ~m