When I was single and living alone in the Bay Area, I made virtually the same thing for dinner each night. I ate meals quickly while in front of the computer. Or even worse: the television. This most often included what I call “Mexican Pizzas” which were basically glorified quesadillas baked in the oven until crispy. Sometimes, if I was really feeling like cooking, I’d whip up a quick stir-fry with frozen vegetables from Trader Joe’s or a mushroom frittata using pre-sliced mushrooms. Mostly, though, it was Mexican Pizzas — a good four or five nights a week. Today, thankfully, dinner looks a lot different. Meals in general look a lot different. How would I explain that difference? I think that ultimately how we feel about our life colors how we choose to feed ourselves and the importance that we place on preparing our own meals.
My parents have been divorced for well over a decade now. My mom lives with her dog Bailey, and my dad with a new partner. Every night for dinner my mom cooks herself a full meal: always something different with a wine she’s excited about and pretty, seasonal dinnerware. Every few months or so, my two sisters and I will text each other a photo of what we’re eating for dinner, and ever since my mom got a smart phone we’ve included her in the chain. The last time this happened I was working on my cookbook and enjoying a truly uninspired dinner of crackers, cheese, and carrot sticks. My youngest sister Zoe, who lives in Manhattan, sent a photo of take-out sushi. My middle sister, Rachael, sent a photo of a hangar steak and a baked potato. Then came my mom’s photo: a shot of the kitchen counter at home with a real place mat, a small glass of wine, flowers in the background, a big bowl of minestrone soup, homemade bread and butter. None of our dinners were better or worse than the other (well, my crackers and cheese left a lot to be desired, really) but my mom’s was different: it showed careful care and preparation. It showed that she valued so much this time in the evening of feeding herself that not only would she cook a well-rounded meal, but she’d also lay it out beautifully. This was the exact opposite of a Mexican Pizza in front of the computer.
When I lived alone, I always felt that I wanted to get dinner over with. It made me sad to eat by myself. Friends would pick up on this and invite me over to their apartments. Sometimes I’d go; sometimes I felt they were pity invitations and I’d skip dinner altogether and walk to yoga instead. But it’s not surprising that my mom’s photo contained such a perfectly-set scene: Growing up, eating dinner together was the one thing that was non-negotiable. No matter what sports practices my sisters and I had, how much homework was on the horizon, or how much my Dad needed to stay at the office to catch up on the books — you always made it to dinner. Period. And with very few exceptions, my mom cooked each and every night. Now these weren’t necessarily gourmet meals. We ate our way through many of the great comfort foods of the eighties and early nineties: baked chicken with Italian bread crumbs, chicken pot pie, meat loaf, lasagna, and “Bosoms” (our favorite meal to talk about to this day). Bosoms are puff pastry shells filled with creamy tuna and peas, topped with that little puff pastry round that acted as — you guessed it–the nipple. Yeah. That was a lot to explain to high school boyfriends. Rachael still makes them to this day. I think my Mom does, too.
This past weekend didn’t bring about much in the way of dinner in our house. Sam and I had an argument over the weekend. A pretty typical couple’s argument over nothing in particular but which grew in its own weird, incomprehensible ways and ended up lasting longer than either of us would’ve liked. We’re both stubborn people. I was fascinated to sort of observe myself over these few days as I completely lost my appetite and any desire to feed myself well. Finally when I got really hungry on Saturday night, guess what I made? That’s right: I broke out a package of corn tortillas, grated some cheddar cheese, sliced a few green onions and a couple of little tomatoes and preheated the oven. Even a small salad seemed too much work at that point. I needed something that would just fill me up quickly and taste good. Nothing fussy. Nothing that required a decision. No thoughts about seasonal flavor combinations or spice profiles. Just warm tortillas, beans and cheese.
Jenny Rosenstrach’s charming cookbook, Dinner: A Love Story, opens with a great quote on family dinner: “I found that if I was eating well, there was a good chance that I was living well, too. I found that when I prioritized dinner, a lot of other things seemed to fall into place … and perhaps most important, the simple act of carving out the ritual — a delicious homemade meal — gave every day purpose and meaning, no matter what else was going on in our lives.” I think this is what my mom would’ve said about why she prioritized dinner when we were kids; it was the one and only thing that anchored all of our frenzied days. And it was this anchor that I was missing this past weekend. The ritual of Sam and I dancing around each other in the kitchen making dinner each night. Sometimes from a cookbook, sometimes something our families used to make, more often than not something thrown together out of what we find in the refrigerator that sounds delicious.
The second Sam and I had finally hashed it out on Sunday evening, I set out to do something with all of the fresh vegetables that had originally been purchased days before with good intentions. I thinly sliced the spring radishes, blanched some asparagus, retrieved the last of the spicy arugula, and found a little nub of salty cheese. After toasting a big handful of almonds and mixing up my new favorite creamy avocado dressing — an impromptu spring meal was born. We sat down at the dining room table and ate quietly. It didn’t matter what was said (and not much was), and it wouldn’t really have mattered what exactly was eaten. It was a meal infused with meaning simply because we were sharing it together, again, and claiming that time as important.
In Tiny, Beautiful Things, Cheryl Strayed writes, “We are here to build the house. It’s our work, our job, the most important gig of all: to make a place that belongs to us, a structure composed of our own moral code. Not the code that echoes imposed cultural values, but the one that tells us on a visceral level what to do.” And that thing to do when I was growing up was to share a meal together, preferably dinner. And today? The reason I can’t stand to eat dinner alone and often feed myself poorly when the occasion arises is not so much because I don’t think I’m worth the effort. Instead, it’s because the ritual has been broken — a meal that has become, to me, so much about carving out time with loved ones is a difficult one to spend alone. On a visceral level, it’s a meal I want to share. It’s what comprises the feeling that, as Cheryl Strayed would say, I’ve a place that belongs to me. And someone sitting across the table who wants to live in that place, too.
Note: This post was inspired by an encouragement from my friend Shauna to write about what family dinner means to you. Shauna and Danny have a wonderful new book that is so much about sharing meals and feeding one another. If you’ve ever spent time with them, they are truly the epitome of “making a place that belongs to us” and you feel it from the moment you step through their door (also, they map out the week’s dinner on a sheet of paper and post it on the fridge which Blows. My. Mind).
This salad is spring in a bowl: the thinly-sliced radishes and green onions combine with the salty cheese, toasty almonds and creamy dressing – resulting in a most satisfying and balanced lunch. You could use a vegetable peeler to get nice, thin slices of the ricotta salata or simply crumble it for a more rustic salad. English peas aren’t in season here yet, but I think a handful folded in at the end of this salad would be pretty wonderful, too.
For the dressing:
For the salad:
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Spread the almonds out onto a small rimmed baking sheet and toast until fragrant and golden, 6-8 minutes.
Make the dressing: In the bowl of a food processor (or blender) combine the avocado, olive oil, lemon juice, vinegar, salt and a few grinds of pepper. Process until smooth. Add the yogurt at the end and process until combined. Taste and season with additional salt and pepper if desired.
Cook the pasta in a large pot of salted water until al dente. Drain and set aside to cool.
While the pasta is cooking, fill a bowl with ice water. Heat a large pot of water over medium-high heat and simmer the asparagus until just crisp-tender, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove asparagus from pot and place in ice bath to stop the cooking. Place cooled asparagus spears on clean surface, towel dry, and slice into 2-inch pieces.
In a large salad bowl, combine the cooked pasta, asparagus and 3/4 cup of the toasted almonds along with the arugula, radishes, green onion, ricotta salata, chives, salt and pepper. Fold in the avocado dressing and toss to combine. Serve at room temperature sprinkling each bowl with a pinch of the remaining toasted almonds. Cover and refrigerate leftovers for up to 2 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?)