Harold is someone I’ve written about many times before, but not here. I wrote about Harold for my college entrance essay, for a graduate school speech, and even mentioned him in my book proposal last year. He’s unassuming in appearance, but not in character — you likely wouldn’t look twice as you walked by him on the street. He’s generous with his time and always up for helping when the cards are down. He has good taste in clothes, enjoys a great meal, and is always full of ideas for how to fill out a day just right. Before I boarded a plane for Ghana the summer of my junior year in college, I thought about Harold. When I got the jitters about leaving my friends and family to move to Seattle, I thought about Harold.
The funny thing is, Harold isn’t real (bear with me here. Really). He’s a character from Harold and the Purple Crayon, a children’s book my mom read to me as a little girl. About ten years ago, she gave me a copy for Christmas, and it sits on the bookshelf in my office today. If you’re not familiar with the story, Harold’s a young boy armed with a purple crayon and he thinks through what he’d like to surround himself with — what he’d like his world to look like–and then simply draws it and it comes to be. Want a full moon tonight and a long evening walk? Harold breaks out the crayon. Care for a long slide to slide down on a sunny afternoon? Harold draws it. The idea behind the book and the charming character of Harold is that we can all create the day we wish to have, the month we really need, or the year we hope for if we use our purple crayons carefully and deliberately — if we simply imagine how we’d like for it to look and set out to begin making it happen. So on New Years Day, I thought about Harold again. I thought about how I’d like this year to look for myself, for Sam and I, and for my business.
Truthfully, I started thinking about 2013 the week before as we drove up the Oregon Coast on our way back to Seattle (you’ll see a few photos here, as promised). I got to show Sam around the towering Redwoods and my hometown of Eureka where we stopped for messy burritos and used books. The next day we continued North to drive up the coast together for the first time, accompanied by Bruce Springsteen for a good many miles. There was a delightful breakfast at the Pancake Mill outside of Coos Bay, a stop in to see our friend Eli in Eugene, and a few silly tourist landmarks (that drive through tree! Prefontaine’s statue!) We made it home to a very cold house and an epically large stack of mail. I was glad to be home. I was ready to settle in again.
The next day was New Year’s Eve and we decided to stay in with a bottle of champagne, good cheese and crackers and Heidi’s simple tomato soup that I can’t seem to get enough of on these winter days. It was just what we wanted for the night. Neither of us are big New Years party people. I find that going out is generally an over-priced evening that feels more like an obligation to yourself or the occasion or someone else than a genuinely good time. Instead, we drew out what we wanted our night to look like and made it so. We took a cue from Harold, clutching champagne glasses, purple crayons in tow.
Don’t get me wrong: I realize the idea behind Harold and the Purple Crayon is simplistic at best. It is a children’s story after all. When it comes right down to it in our day-to-day lives, there are so many factors we can’t control that would certainly get in the way of drawing, so to speak, something you’d like for yourself and having it just come to fruition. There’s the very real issue of money, the possibility of sickness or family duress, of work obligations, or stresses outside of your control. When I think of this year and talk about it with Sam, I’m not talking about moving into a house we can’t afford, taking a big trip to New Zealand, or opening up a large kitchen that would belong only to Marge. Those things simply aren’t in the cards.
But I do think that the spirit of New Years can be a pretty powerful thing. The thought that we can set one foot in front of the other and begin envisioning a different path for ourselves if we so choose. In the imagining of it all comes the promise of possibility. But you’ve got to get to the imagining part first. I found a funny thing to be true this year: it was far easier to set goals for my business than it was for myself. For Marge, I have a few new products we’re going to launch for spring/summer, I have specific plans for media outreach, and am going to work more aggressively on acquiring new vendors — something I simply hadn’t had time to do while writing the book. For myself? I felt stuck. Sure, I wanted to be more regular with my yoga practice and spend more time reading. But I couldn’t actually envision myself outside of my business or my work life.
A few days after New Years, Sam and I went to my new favorite spot in Seattle, The Wandering Goose, and shared plates of fried chicken, biscuits and greens and made lists of our resolutions: we made one column for our businesses, one for ourselves as individuals, and one for us as a couple. This helped. Putting things down on paper made it start to feel more real. Outside of Marge, I want to take my great grandfather’s cameras into the shop to get looked at and begin learning to shoot film. I want to see Palm Springs and New Orleans. I want to train for another marathon. I want to cook more dinners that are out of our comfort zone, and hike and camp the heck out of this summer. Oh, and grow tomatoes. Each one makes me smile to type. My purple crayon is poised for this year. All are doable, I think. And all are deliberate: in setting them down on paper and imagining them, as Harold would do, I’m accountable for them and am ready to start making them happen.
I suppose this gratin is a step in the right direction of one of my hopes for this year — of getting in the kitchen and cooking more religiously and routinely in the evenings. I do a lot of cooking for writing projects and recipe development for others, but I don’t spend as much time pushing myself in our kitchen for no other reason than to have dinner.
The idea for this gratin was born from a “kale sale” at the farmers market — I’m sure your market isn’t much different than ours right now: greens, onions or squash. Perhaps an occasional leek. So this weekend, I brought home a poppy seed roll for Sam, a few apples, and a pile of kale and set off to do something with it that I hadn’t done before. I knew I wanted the gratin to be slightly creamy and we had a big nub or Parmesan I wanted to use up. I love hearty greens and grains together, so I folded in some millet for a little texture and crunch. The result was just as I’d hoped: a hearty side dish (or even main dish) with some of the best of what winter’s got to offer right now. And a promise for more time in the kitchen to come. Happy New Year! I know 2013’s going to be a good one — here and beyond.
Use any winter greens you’d like for this recipe. I just happened to have kale (I used two kinds: lacinato and purple kale), but mustard greens or mizuna would be great and would add a little of their characteristic spiciness. Next time I make this gratin, I might scatter some bread crumbs over the top, or thinly slice a sweet potato and layer that in as well. The millet cooks most of the way in the gratin itself, so no need to pre-cook it: It will come out a bit chewy and a touch crunchy, which I really liked here. Lots of flavor; lots of texture.
Preheat oven to 375 F. Lightly butter a 1 ½ or 2-quart baking dish. Soak the millet in a bowl of warm water while you set out to prepare the other ingredients.
Boil a large pot of salted water, and add the kale. Cook until just softened, about 2-3 minutes. I did mine in two batches as all the kale wouldn’t all fit in our large pot. Use a slotted spoon and transfer the kale to a large bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. Remove from the cool water and, using your hands, squeeze as much water from the kale as possible and lay it out on good work surface. The kale tends to clump into balls when squeezed, so spend a few moments separating it and “declumping” it.
Heat oil in a small nonstick skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Add the shallot and cook, stirring often, until translucent, about 4-5 minutes. Add the garlic and thyme, and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute more. In a large mixing bowl, combine the drained kale and cooked shallots. Drain the millet completely and add that as well.
In a small bowl, whisk together the eggs, 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese, heavy cream, milk, nutmeg, salt, black pepper and chile powder. Pour the liquid over the kale mixture and stir well to combine. Turn out into the prepared baking dish and top with remaining 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese.
Bake for 20 minutes, then increase the heat to 400 F and bake for an additional 10-15 minutes, or until cheese is completely melted, the top is browned and the edges are bubbling. Allow to cool and set for 15 minutes before serving. Cover leftovers and refrigerate for up to 3 days.
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?)