In the airport bathroom, it seemed as though all the women were changing into sequined sandals and little knit shirts with white capris. I hadn’t quite thought through the outfit change scenario — the fact that the temperature when I left Seattle at 11 p.m. might be different than it is in St. Barths at 3 p.m. Driving to the villa, the roads were narrow and cars slapped against palm leaves and bougainvillea as they rounded tight corners. 70-year old women walked topless on the beaches and iced tea cost eight dollars. Dinners were always eaten out, and it was balmy enough to leave with a sundress on and nothing more. Meals consisted of polenta fries, citrusy shaved artichoke salad, Sea Bream with butter and lemon, tuna tartare with avocado cream and thinly sliced radishes, lobster fritters cloaked in spicy aioli, and warm chocolate cake. And wine. Lots of wine. And then, with morning: a reset button.
A cup of strong coffee and a simple bowl of muesli and yogurt — the likes of which I recognized from home. Mornings felt nourishing and necessary, a way to break up the days of sensory overload. Muesli was the opposite of perfectly bronzed physiques, shiny yachts, and stylish cover-ups. It belonged in a whole other universe from the one of over-sized sunglasses, gold flip-flops, and wahoo kabobs. Muesli laid itself bare; It wasn’t hiding who it was or trying to be something it wasn’t: muesli was simply oats, nuts and seeds and was always there the moment I awoke.
Mosquitos would be out first thing in the morning, so the scent of citronella joined the more familiar smell of strong espresso brewing. The sun hot enough to burn your shoulders at 10 a.m., we’d finish breakfast and head down to the beach. And the day would unfold itself. During my few days in St. Barths, I read two books, swam in the ocean many times, found a nice collection of sea shells, and took showers outdoors. I ate wild boar risotto and drank Negronis. I might’ve worn gold flips-flops, but it depends on who’s asking. I might’ve worn a new floppy hat, too.
It felt like just the break I’d envisioned — but it also felt starkly different from anything familiar. Back home or otherwise. While I’ve traveled quite a bit, I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was about St. Barths that made it so so difficult to categorize. Because cruise ships don’t dock there, it really is serene, relatively quiet and starkly beautiful. But couched in that beauty is the sense that everything is over-the-top, from the plates piled with beef carpaccio to the long strands of onyx pearls women wear to the beach. Breakfast was the one time of day that felt familiar and easy, and not at all flashy.
When I returned home late Saturday night, Sam had a big vase of hydrangeas on the table, made me wilted arugula with a runny egg, and caught me up on everything I’d missed. I sifted through the mail and ambled around the house — I’d missed our house. And in the morning, Sunday morning, there was the paper. And I made a big bowl of muesli. There was a noticeable lack of sun, sure. And those gold flip-flops had made their way pretty quickly to the back of my closet. But it felt like the kind of morning I’d been having all week, except this time more familiar. This time, thankful for the tan and sea shells rattling around in my carry-on, but also really glad to be home.
Now, a few words on muesli: While you can certainly eat it much like you would granola (sprinkle it dry onto yogurt or add milk and treat it like a cold cereal), traditionally it’s a cold porridge of raw oats, nuts, and fruits that you soak in the refrigerator the night before serving in some combination of milk, apple juice, water, and/or yogurt. I tend to be a bit of a purist, but a lot of people like to grate an apple into their soaking muesli or toss in some frozen berries (they thaw and soften into the porridge).
I was doing a Marge granola tasting downtown a few weeks ago and a very sweet Swiss couple came up to my table and stared, astonishingly at the little cups of granola. The husband took a photo with his phone, the wife sniffed her sample and stared back and forth – first at me, then the granola. They didn’t speak much English, but eventually we’d established that they’d never seen granola before. The woman said to me in disbelief, “you burned muesli!” I tried to explain the draw of granola: it’s toasted and slightly sweet, and the clumps are ever-so-lovely in yogurt. I became granola’s national spokesperson for that one moment, and let me tell you, it wasn’t working. The astonished stares continued. There was another iphone photo of the granola. Then one of me (I can just imagine this being passed around their small town in Switzerland: proof of the American woman who burns muesli!). They couldn’t understand why you’d add maple syrup and oil to an already perfect mixture of oats, nuts and seeds.
And this, my friends, is why muesli can be a nice re-set button as we ever-so-slowly enter into the warmer spring months. I get the question a lot when teaching whole-grain breakfast classes and talking about muesli: why not just eat granola? And the answer is just as the Swiss couple indicated while walking away from my table: it can be nice to have the raw, stripped down version of something so great every now and again. If you want all of the nutrition of granola (good complex carbohydrates, protein, fiber) but are trying to watch your sugar or fat intake, muesli has your name written all over it. And once you find a blend you like and a routine for soaking it (if that’s your thing), it just might be something you look forward to in the mornings – I know I do.
Use this recipe as a template, substituting any nuts, seeds, or dried fruits you particularly like. If you want to avoid a trip to the bulk bins, feel free to use all oats instead of the three grains listed below – I happen to like all three because they add different color to each bowl, and I particularly love the darker flavor of rye flakes in the morning. Many people toast their oats and nuts when making muesli, too. If I’m soaking my muesli, I tend to skip this step because I find it all softens the same way into my yogurt, so it feels like an unnecessary step. But if you’re going to enjoy this dry much like granola, feel free to toast your dry oats and nuts in a 350 F oven for 7-10 minutes, or until fragrant.
In a large bowl, combine all dry ingredients. Transfer to a large jar (quart-size Mason jar works well here), and enjoy as you would granola or any other cereal, adding milk/nut milks/yogurt as you please.
Alternatively, soak your muesli overnight: For a single serving, scoop out ¾ cup muesli and stir it into ½ cup yogurt and ¼ cup milk or apple juice. Let sit in the refrigerator for at least 3 hours and up to overnight. After soaking, remove muesli from the fridge and allow it to come to room temperature, about 10-15 minutes. Add an extra splash of milk if you like your muesli a bit looser (I do), a dollop of honey or stir in your favorite jam.
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?)