Lunch has been on my mind lately, mainly because I haven’t been doing it right. I’ve recently hired a new employee in the bakery who is catching on quickly and brings real lunches for herself each day — taking a good, dedicated break to enjoy them. This amazes me. When I’m working in the Marge Granola kitchen, I’ll often forget to eat or have a handful of granola or a cup of yogurt at best; the day usually gets away from me and to take the time to sit and have a meal just means, ultimately, a longer work day. But when I come home I find myself drained of energy and not that productive or inspired to do much in the evening. So I’ve been trying to be more mindful of packing hearty snacks to eat throughout the day. Then a few weeks ago, after hearing good things from many friends, I ordered Peter Miller’s new book, Lunch at the Shop, and am starting to look at the midday meal in a whole new light.
Peter Miller’s charming book, Lunch at the Shop is, in many ways, a manifesto to the midday meal that so many of us often neglect for lack of time or the very real hustle and bustle of the average workday. Miller owns a bookshop in the Pike Place Market here in Seattle and everyday he and his small staff make lunch for one another in their back staff room. They don’t have an oven or range, but they manage to pull together seasonal lunches regardless of the amount of work or level of stress any given day may bring. They’ve deemed it important — and that shines through in this book. Here, lunch is the center of the day: “It is the separation between the front of the day and the back, a narrow strip between stretches of work. Talking and sitting with others allow us to leave the pencil, or the laptop, or the phone and enjoy the break. We can get back to the work in a few minutes, revived…the job is not complex, and it is not clever. You are simply taking a part of the day back into your own hands, making it personal and a pleasure.”
In his introduction, Miller notes: “Some of cooking is using what you love. And some of cooking is using what you have left. Lunch is about both.” I think if we all focused a bit more on the latter — on using what we have left — a decent lunch might happen more often. Preparing ingredients in advance (washing greens, chopping herbs, slicing cheese, boiling eggs) or cooking a few things ahead (cooking up a pot of grains on Sunday) will ensure throwing something together in the morning — or midday– is more of a reality. With that in mind, the key to elevating lunch, I think, is having a few basics on hand and knowing that it doesn’t have to be complicated or time consuming. Miller notes that the staff at the shop generally tries to stock up on olives, parsley and lemons, pickles and fruit and cheese to dress up meals. In our house, we also keep parsley around but also make sure we have eggs, tuna, tortillas and greens and usually a quick meal isn’t too far off. And of course supplementing with other store-bought, prepared things that you love is always a good idea — Miller describes the hummus at Mamnoon and how they like to keep that around for quick meals. We often buy a little smoked salmon at the Ballard farmers market and work around that for the week in scrambles, wraps and salads.
Many of the lunches at the bookshop are simple open-faced sandwiches or a salad made with local greens, salty cheese and a boiled egg. They don’t require a cookbook or an internet search. There are lentils (a few different ways!), seasonal sandwiches, thoughtful salads and soups. The aim and goal isn’t about perfection or about whose meal is the tastiest — it’s simply about doing it, each day. After all, the more we all strive for lunchtime perfection (or perfection in any regard), I think the less we’re actually inclined to make the meal. And that’s part of my problem at work: Sam and I make great work-at-home lunches when I’m at the house, but if I’m out at the bakery I often feel like I just can’t be bothered and I’d rather wait until I’m back at home. But big vegetable-heavy salads like this one will help — they’re something that can be made ahead and refrigerated for a few days. Easily portable and much more nourishing than a handful of granola while standing and shipping Fedex boxes.
So yesterday I made this spring quinoa salad using the colorful vegetables we had on hand, leftover quinoa from a big pot I’d cooked up a few days ago and a bunch of fresh chives I picked up from my farmers market neighbors. I made a quick lemony dressing and crumbled in a bit of cheese. I think Peter Miller’s staff would approve — this is a simple lunch at its best. It won’t take you long to prepare, you can do so the night before, and yet it’s thoughtful and satisfying and will make you feel happier than if you grab a pre-made sandwich on your way into the office (or at least it would for me). I’m excited to share the recipe with you today because I think it’s one that you can make your own with ingredients you have on hand (see my suggestions in the headnote). It has a refreshing brightness from the lemon, and the handful of fresh herbs make it feel decidedly different from the winter fare (cabbage! kale!) we’ve been living on for what feels like forever.
Note: Inspired by Peter’s book, I’m going to make an effort to share some of the quick work-at-home lunches that Sam and I often make for one another. He makes an epic tuna salad that we both love that I’ll share with you in the next few weeks — in perfect time for sunny stoop lunches or outdoor picnics.
To make this salad your own, feel free to use any cooked grain you’d like (a hearty grain like farro or wheat berries would be great as would a more delicate grain like millet). Then simply add 1 1/4 cups chopped fresh herbs of your choosing (mint, basil, chives, parsley, cilantro — anything goes) along with 3 cups of your favorite cooked spring vegetables. Cloak it all in this easy lemony dressing and you’ve got your own version of this simple lunch salad.
For the salad:
For the dressing:
Prepare an ice water bath in a large bowl. Bring a medium saucepan of salted water to a boil. Add the asparagus and cook for about 2 – 2 1/2 minutes, or until just barely tender (it will continue to cook just a bit out of the water). Drain and quickly to ice water bath to stop the cooking. Drain again then towel dry and slice into 2-3 inch pieces.
To make the dressing, simply whisk together all ingredients in a small bowl. Add a few grinds of fresh pepper and set aside.
In a large salad bowl, combine cooked quinoa, asparagus, radishes, and herbs. Toss with dressing. Season with additional salt and pepper as needed. Fold in goat cheese and serve. Refrigerate any leftovers 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?)