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.
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.