January is a month of contradictions, from the highs of New Years Eve and the momentum of fresh starts and cleaner closets to the reality of dark winter days filled with putting away holiday decorations and getting tax paperwork ready. There’s a noticeable lack of sugary cookies and far fewer twinkling lights. And during this month, I always find that my cooking becomes much more basic and stripped down, not for any of the more popular reasons (diets and cleanses), but more because I often look to our pantry to start really using up what we have on hand and trying to find vegetables that I’m inspired by at the farmers market. Lately we’ve been cooking up crisp fennel to add to wild rice or grain dishes, sautéing lots of mushrooms, and roasting potatoes. We’ve got red cabbage in the refrigerator and slice it thinly to make fish tacos once or twice a week, and hearty greens are always in heavy rotation. It’s not as colorful as spring and summer produce, and sometimes it feels much more dutiful, but that’s January for you: a month of pokes and prods to keep on your toes in the kitchen. Or, alternatively, to just sit down — which is really nice, too. This recipe combines both of those sentiments: it uses a wonderful grain you may not be familiar with, but beyond that it’s a very simple and satisfying recipe that won’t take much time out of your short day and will leave you feel energized and ready to look ahead.
For me, January is also a time to think about the upcoming year as a whole, not just in the kitchen. Each New Year’s Day, Sam and I go to The Wandering Goose, one of our favorite cafes in town and sit down over biscuits and coffee to talk about what we’d like to focus on, accomplish or dream about. We don’t call these resolutions — they’re more like a list of what excites us when we look ahead. I didn’t realize that Sam had kept last year’s list in the same book, so when we finished talking about 2015, he flipped back and we went through our hopes last year to see what we accomplished and compared how similar or different our sentiments were. The differences between what I hoped for last year and what I hope for this year were remarkably different.
This year, a few of the things on my list involve: trying to buy our first house, learning to sew clothing and get better at sewing quilts, getting better at baking bread, traveling to New Orleans for the first time, growing my first tomato, reading more, hiking more. Last year, my list looked much more like: gain 20 new vendors for Marge, work on new organic certifications for Marge, research doing food and gift shows, work on new seasonal gift sets, set up a granola subscription service. Apparently this year I’m ready to not focus solely on work. That feeling of work fatigue has certainly come before, but it’s often met with guilt and anxiety as I tend to be someone who isn’t great at letting go of the reigns (Sam calls me his little do-er). But something’s changed this year: there’s actually no guilt, and immense satisfaction when I spend a weekend afternoon on the couch reading or walking with a friend around the lake instead of focusing on work tasks. I’ve even been taking shorter work days to try to go to a favorite exercise class or make something more interesting for dinner. 2015, I like you already.
Something slow and steady happens when you find yourself focusing solely on work and letting other things slide away that make you really happy — I think you often don’t realize they’re gone until you look around and think about how long it’s been since you’ve seen a few of your dear friends, or how many weeks (and weeks … and weeks) have passed before you actually finish a book. So I’m not going to let that happen this year. I’m hoping to see more people, read more books, close the computer more. The question of how to balance work and having a family often comes up in the media these days, especially for working moms. While that’s an entirely different blog post, I will say that I really do feel the same tugs and questions when trying to balance work and simply … having a life. I suppose these are the restraints of owning your own small business, but I’m resolving (yes, resolving!) to strive a little less fiercely with it this year. And strive more for sunset walks like the one below taken a few days ago while catching up with a friend.
So now let’s talk about food to sustain us through this long month: freekeh (free-kah). If this grain is new to you, freekah is young (still green) wheat that’s harvested, then dried out in the sun and roasted. It’s nubby and looks much like bulgur wheat in appearance, but has a really earthy, nutty flavor and a delightful chewy texture. You can buy freekeh in whole grain form or cracked, and in its cracked form — as you’ll see below — it’s relatively quick cooking (15 to 20 minutes or so). This makes it super versatile; you can use it in everything from breakfast porridge to dinner pilafs.
Sam thinks this salad feels much like a wintry, loaded tabbouli and he’s right in the sense that there’s a generous hit of parsley for color and texture. I love the marriage of the toasty walnuts with the slightly smoky flavor of the freekeh — and the salty green olives, lemony vinaigrette and tender zucchini make this salad truly come alive with different flavors and textures. I prefer to serve it room temperature or warm, not cold; it’s best to let all the flavors marry and mingle, and if it’s served right out of the refrigerator, it just doesn’t taste as good. That being said, it’s great stored in the refrigerator for up to 4 days if you have leftovers.
Freekeh is still not as easily found as some more popular whole grains; I found a bag at our local Whole Foods and I’ve also bought it online. I’ve tried both Freekehlicious and Freekeh Foods brand, and both are great. If you just can’t find it in your city, you can certainly swap in another chewy, hearty grain like farro, wheat berries or buckwheat groats. Remember, we’re talking ease and less stress here for January, so do as you please with this salad; I’d love to hear if you use any different grains or vegetables that you’re excited about.
Quick side note for those of you in the Seattle area: I’ll be giving an author talk at the Everett Public Library this Saturday, 1/24 at 10:30 a.m. There will be treats from my cookbook as well as an awesome used cookbook swap; I think it’ll be a really sweet morning and I’d love to see you there.
For Freekeh Salad:
For Lemon-Parmesan Vinaigrette:
Rinse freekeh in a colander. Bring a medium pot of water to boil and add the freekeh. Bring the water back up to a boil, then cover the pot and reduce the heat to low. Simmer for 15 to 18 minutes, or until the grains are tender (but will remain chewy as is their nature). Drain any excess water and set aside.
In a skillet heat the oil over medium heat. Stir in the garlic and cook for just a few minutes, or until it starts to very lightly brown. Fold in the zucchini and the salt, and stir well. Push the zucchini around the pan so the cubes are in as much of a single layer as possible. Increase the heat to medium-high and cook until the zucchini browns evenly, about 8-10 minutes.
Meanwhile, make the dressing: whisk the lemon juice and shallot together in a small bowl and set aside for 10 minutes. Then whisk in the olive oil, vinegar, Parmesan and salt.
In a large serving bowl, toss together the cooked freekeh, sautéed zucchini, leek, toasted walnuts, green olives, parsley and dill. Dress the salad, taste and season with additional salt and black pepper, as needed.
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?)