I have an office in the upstairs of our house, but I’m often found camped-out at the kitchen table or nudged into our small breakfast nook — coffee cup, computer, and messy notes scattered about. We live in an old craftsman that boasts only one heating vent on the second floor, so in the winter it’s freezing and in the summer it can get pretty stuffy and uncomfortable. Spring, on the other hand, is the season I claim it all back. Working upstairs with the morning birds, the one curious roof-top squirrel, and the changing afternoon light — it feels like my world alone. It’s not shared with household bills, neighbor kids walking by, or the UPS man ringing the bell. It’s just me, and I have to say: I notice a change in my writing, in the cadence of my day and in my mood. Everything feels a bit calmer and less harried. There’s a tiny, noticeable transformation. Hello from up here.
I just started Michael Pollan’s new book, Cooked. Truthfully, I’m not all that far along, but I’m fascinated by his stories of North Carolina barbecues and his sentiments on the culture and meaning behind home cooking. The phrase that has stayed with me the most: “And in almost every dish, you can find, besides the culinary ingredients, the ingredients of a story: a beginning, middle and an end.” Simple enough sentiments, really, but as a writer and a former teacher I love the emphasis on the unveiling of a story through food — on ingredients as the stepping stones towards a greater narrative.
I saw a recipe for a Fresh Pea Soup in a recent issue of Sunset magazine and that’s where the inspiration for this recipe came from. While similar in base components (peas, onions and mint) my version strays by folding in cooked quinoa for texture (and umph — it feels a bit more like a stew than a thin soup), toasty almonds, and a lemony yogurt sauce. We don’t often shop at Trader Joe’s, but there are a few things I do like to buy there. The essentials, really: cheese, white vermouth, trail mix, and nuts. And the other day while waiting for my car to be fixed, I was strolling the aisles and came across a little bag of fresh shelled English peas. And so: the transformation began.
Last year around this time I told you a little bit about our garden. Sam built raised beds for the backyard, I rounded up soil to fill them and started spending mornings working in the yard before the day kicked into high gear. I bought starts that year — convinced that seeds were too advanced and, really, I didn’t know what I was doing in the first place. Those small starts turned into a big crop of basil, thyme, beets, some boisterous kale, and a few very odd cabbages. This year I planted seeds instead of starts, carefully reading the directions on each package. I spaced them just as instructed, labeled them with a little wooden stick so I would’t forget what was what, and check in on the garden boxes often (as if much really happens in 6 or 8 hours). And guess what? In the past few weeks, everything’s sprouting: I can see the possibility of beans and peas and eventual sunflowers and ears of corn. I can see signs of arugula, parsley and butter lettuce. I can look ahead and see the meals to come. I can envision the story.
This soup is evidence that a few very basic ingredients can blend together into a vibrant spring mess of green right before your eyes. The transformation is easy to see; not as easy to see: the story. It’s a tale of being on the verge. A house and a garden on the verge. A season on the verge. We’re just tiptoeing up to the edge of a canyon — summer — and looking out at all that’s to come. The hiking, fresh tomatoes, camping, beach runs and late-night dinners outside. Working the farmers markets for Marge, the picnic tables, cocktails and visit to my mom’s cabin. This soup is just the beginning and a glimpse towards the stories that lie ahead, waiting.
For most soups, I use a low-sodium broth so I can ultimately control the amount of salt. And because all brands are different, you may want to add a little more salt to your finished soup at the end. The lemony yogurt sauce is great to have around in general — I use it on grains, savory crepes or folded into cold pasta. This recipe makes just enough to have with your soup, so feel free to double (or quadruple) the recipe if you want to have more on hand. Sam insists on sprinkling his soup with a little flaky salt at the end, so I’ve included that in the recipe below.
For Lemony Yogurt:
Make the lemony yogurt: In a small bowl, whisk together the yogurt, lemon juice, lemon zest and chives. Set aside.
Make the soup: Preheat the oven to 350 F. Lay the almonds out on a small, rimmed baking sheet and toast for 5-6 minutes or until fragrant and golden brown. Set aside.
Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and salt and cook until transluscent, 5-6 minutes. Stir as needed to avoid sticking. Add 2 cups of the vegetable broth and increase the heat to medium-high to bring to a boil. Add the fresh peas and cook until fork-tender, 3-4 minutes.
In a blender (or using an immersion blender) puree the pea mixture along with the mint and a few grinds of fresh black pepper until smooth. Pour back into the saucepan and stir in the quinoa over medium heat until hot enough to serve. If the soup seems too thick, add 1/2 cup additional broth (or more if you’d like). Taste and adjust the seasoning if needed.
To serve: Ladle the soup into small bowls. Top with a dollop of lemon yogurt and a few spoonfuls to toasted almonds. Sprinkle with a little flaky salt. Cover and refrigerate any leftovers 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.