Last weekend it was so windy – apocalyptically stormy, you could say – that our tent at the farmers market was uprooted by gusts of wind that were not messing around. I wasn’t there, but apparently despite being heavily weighted down and with four customers holding onto each corner, it quite literally blew down the block. Sam, from across town, was reporting trees falling on every block and traffic lights out across the city. The next morning on a walk with Oliver around Green Lake, we were met with that same biting wind and ended up retreating for a hot chocolate instead. ‘Tis the season in Seattle: we all get a little giddy and ahead of ourselves when we spot the cherry blossoms and daffodils, and I always trick myself into thinking that with the start of daylight savings time, summer must be right around the corner.
In truth, before we had Oliver, we’d often travel somewhere sunny for a little mood boost around this time of year. When I moved from California, many friends – other (empathetic) ‘expats’ now living in the Pacific Northwest – recommended this: if you know what’s good for you, they’d all say, go find the sun in February or March, and we would follow that advice faaaaaithfully. But with a baby, this just isn’t where our priorities are this year, and I’ve found myself relying on other antics like buying out of season strawberries, drinking white wine with dinner, buying a new pair of sandals that likely will not see the light of day for the next two months, and making big, colorful pots of feel good, springy soup. Let’s not kid ourselves: Cherry blossoms or not, Seattle’s no Palm Springs when it gets down to bathing in the sunlight. But if you step outside onto your little porch, smell the honeysuckle blooming, take notice of the longer, lighter days and think about how you simply can’t wait to see your baby crawling around on the sand when it’s warm enough to stroll down to the beach, it starts looking better in its own light.
I spend a great deal of time thinking about how to get back into the kitchen and cook. Everyone said that it would all change after a baby and I read posts touting the magic of meal planning and Quick Weeknight Dinners, assuring myself this would not be us. How hard could it really be to find time to cook again? Hard, it turns out. You were all right, alright? And it’s clear I’m not the only one thinking about these things (did you all see Molly’s post on Cooking with a Young Child? Kasey’s recent post on Cooking These Days?).
I knew in the weeks after having Oliver things would need to shift. Other people would visit and cook for us, friends would even deliver food. We’d order in. I would take a huge step back. But much sooner than I’d expected I began yearning to take a step back in, despite having neither the time or, frankly, the mental clarity to do so. While I realize that the discussion of cooking with a baby babbling on the kitchen floor isn’t for everyone, I do think, baby or not, we all deal with slumps and hurdles in trying to stay motivated in the kitchen, so I thought I’d share a few tricks that have helped me get back into cooking. Okay, not every night. Hardly. I probably cook a homemade meal either from a recipe or by instinct / feel about twice a week, the other days pulling something quick together with Sam, like a big salad, quesadillas or some sort of whole grain or pasta situation. But, much as our stormy blossoming season, or this little light of mine learning to sit up, I think we’re on our way there.
A Tiny Bit of Gear: I was very, very weary of buying a bunch of baby stuff when we learned we were pregnant. To be honest, I can’t stand clutter and I just hated the looks of most of it. But we’ve slowly acquired a few more things and some of them have proved to be indispensable in getting things done in the kitchen. Oliver has a Bobby Lounger Pillow where he sits happily playing with a toy or two for a good ten or fifteen minutes (twenty if the Gods are favoring you). If you race, you can get some serious chopping done in this time. It helps if you sing in low tones and do some crazy lady dancing antics. Tap dancing works, too. For days when Oliver isn’t feeling the Boppy, we love the Solly Baby Wrap. Once you get the hang of it, it’s really easy to wear, keeps your baby close and allows you to be hands free in the kitchen. Now that Oliver’s become more aware and interested in what’s going on around him, I generally talk him through the recipe steps and what will come next. Then if things start really going south, we turn to our trusty pacifier-with-clips, a lifesaver sparing me from constantly bending down to pick the pacifiers up when Oliver inevitably spits them out (I love these not-ugly ones from Madeline’s Box).
Menu Planning: I remember probably about a year before Oliver was born, we were at a friends house and she had a dinner menu for the next two weeks posted on the fridge. I was part in awe at her organization and part horrified at the lack of spontaneity in their weeks: what if you don’t feel like taco night next Thursday? Now after having Oliver, I totally get it. Sometimes, it’s all about just putting a plan in place and eating some damn tacos, whether you really feel like them or not. So while we certainly don’t plan out a two week menu (or even a one week menu), I’ve been trying to be really deliberate about picking two recipes or things to make at the beginning of the week so that we have some cornerstone meals and then we fill in the rest with quick, easy dinners or leftovers. Or occasionally a pizza from Delancey.
Cook the Night Before: One of the only ways I’ve found that I can actually cook something even slightly involved for dinner is to cook the night before. Usually this is long after Oliver goes to sleep and long after we’ve eaten dinner … so we’re talking 9 or 10 p.m. At first, I felt really bitter and unhappy doing this, and could think of 99 things I’d rather be doing. Of course my mind wandered to ‘this is what life is now: I’ll never cook dinner at a normal time again.’ But! Come the next day when we have beef carnitas all ready to go or homemade tomato sauce and braised greens, the day feels much more under control. A friend recently lamented that she was having a horrible time cooking dinner because by the time dinner time rolls around, the babies (she has twins!) are fussy and the countdown to bedtime has already begun. I suggested this trick to her. For me, it seems the only truly sane way to do it the way I want to do it. A late night cocktail helps, too.
Be Cool With Less: Another reason I initially felt defeated during the dinner hour was in looking at our plates and feeling like we were failing: it was so different than how we used to eat. These days we often reheat soup and thaw a baguette. Sometimes we make grilled cheese or scrambled eggs. We eat a lot of scrambled eggs. Sometimes if we’re feeling fancy we dress them up with chevre and chives. But as with most things Baby, I remind myself it’s not permanent. Right now, it’s all about just getting something to eat before it gets dark. I try to look away from all of those glossy articles and blogs promising recipes and tips for new moms on How to Live Your Best Life in the Kitchen every darn night of the week: it’s possible they’re all living on Mars. We all do our best.
Give Yourself a Break: For nights when shopping and preparing a meal from scratch just isn’t an option, we’ve fallen for this new healthy meal delivery service called Sunbasket. It’s currently available in a handful of states including Washington and California (check their site to see if they deliver to your state) and much like the dozens of other services out there, the meals can all be pulled together in 30 minutes or under and they offer options for specialized diets including paleo, gluten-free, and vegetarian. But beyond all this, I think Sunbasket really stands out for one reason: their approach to waste. They actually include a shipping label so that you can mail back the shipping box along with all of the packaging and they reuse it for a future shipment. So when things start feeling too busy or overwhelming, it never hurts to go the easy route and have someone deliver the ingredients for your dinner to your front door. We recently tried their Spring Vegetable Tofu Stir Fry and loved it. And it actually made a generous enough portion that we had it for lunch the next day. If you’re interested in ordering a Sunbasket box of your own, they’re offering A Sweet Spoonful readers $30 off your first order.
Another great tip that I didn’t formally build into this list is doubling a good recipe and freezing some of it, which is exactly what I did with this recipe for Power Greens Soup. I made this soup late at night and ended up photographing it the next morning while Oliver was bouncing away in his heinously ugly jungle jumper contraption that we’ve exiled into the corner of the kitchen. It’s a soup that started out of necessity: on a very rainy day last week I ended up going to Costco with Oliver because, to be honest, I needed a destination. We usually go on long walks in the morning but with the awful weather, I was at a loss for where to go. So we got in the car and strolled the aisles of Costco, picking up some odd things: a ton of goat cheese, a ton of almonds, a ton of cheddar cheese, a ton of greens and a ton of broccoli. I got home and judged myself, wondering what we’d now do with a ton of said items. And as the days ticked on, I started to worry that the greens and broccoli were going to go bad, so I sat down and pencilled a recipe for a soup packed with greens — a soup that would feel like spring even though spring produce isn’t quite available yet. A simple, rustic soup that I could brighten with a bit of lemon and sop up with a slice of the olive oil brioche our friend Mataio recently brought to our house when he stayed the night.
It turns out there are lots of recipes for green soup out there, most relying on a combination of greens, lemon, onion and potato – or sometimes rice. I wanted to incorporate broccoli and celery simply because we had them on hand, really pack it with hearty greens and fold in nutty Parmesan at the end. While it may not win Best Looking Soup of the Year award, I think it’s a winner. I hope you find the time this week to get into the kitchen at some point and cook something that makes you and your people happy, baby or not. Soup or not. Just something good that speaks to you.
Like most rustic soups, this recipe is super adaptable. While I give pretty precise measurements, there’s no need to be too strict here. Worst case scenario if you start to futz with it: you’ll need a little more liquid or perhaps a little more seasoning. When you shop for your greens, many of them now come in 5 ounce bags, so if this is the route you’re going, you’ll need to grab three of those when you’re at the market. Otherwise, simply weigh out the greens on your kitchen scale or estimate in handfuls. I know it seems like a ton of greens but they do cook down quite a bit and diminish in size. Again, going by feel isn’t a bad thing.
In a large soup pot or Dutch oven, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion and celery and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook an additional minute. Fold the chopped broccoli and potato into the pot, season with salt and pepper, and cook down until vegetables soften, about 7-9 minutes.
Add the vegetable stock. Stir well and bring to a boil. Add the greens and stir until they wilt, about 2 minutes. Remove from the heat. Using a food processor or blender, puree the soup in batches. Pour back into the pot. Add the lemon juice and stir. If the soup feels too thick, add a bit of water to loosen until it’s the consistency you like. Stir in the grated Parmesan and taste. Adjust seasoning if necessary. Serve in your favorite bowls with an extra sprinkling of Parmesan.
Note: Sunbasket has sponsored a portion of this post and Madeline’s Box and Solly Baby Wrap kindly sent along their products for us to try. All opinions are my own.
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?)