Last weekend I taught a cooking class called Summer Whole Grain Bowls at The Pantry. It was a new class for me: new recipes, new flow, uncertain timing. A few days before the class I realized I was strangely dreading it, and I usually love teaching so I couldn’t quite figure out why. Part of it certainly was that it was new material, but the other part came down to pure baby logistics. Oliver is still nursing so being away from him and prepping and teaching students for 5-6 hours ends up being stressful and, frankly, uncomfortable. To pull it off involves a partner who brings you the baby the second class is over as well as a baby patient enough to nurse in the back of a very hot car, balanced next to a box of cookbooks and a case of Le Croix. And then a mama who heads back indoors to prep for the next day’s class. Let’s just say Sam and I were happy to see Sunday evening roll around.
All of that being said, the class was spectacular. The students were interested and engaged and really excited to learn. I feared the topic would feel too pedestrian and that there wasn’t enough technique involved — let’s face it, we weren’t making homemade croissants. We were whipping up simple dressings, cooking up pots of grains, and chopping and slicing beautiful summer produce to mix together salads for lunch. But I have to continually remind myself that cooking a variety of whole grains and figuring out what to do with them is new to a lot of people. The thing I’m hearing more and more from students these days is that they’re most excited to take classes that give them the little nudge they need to try a few new recipes that they can actually make at home in a short period of time. Recipes that will help them prep for the work week. Recipes that can serve as a quick dinner without much fuss or stress. So while we weren’t learning how to incorporate layers of butter into homemade croissants, we were talking all about how to realistically feed our families and ourselves. How to avoid that Sad Desk Lunch. I left really inspired by their energy and enthusiasm, and I think they felt similarly. And it’s possible I made some new freekeh and millet fans. Here’s hoping.
The recipe I’m sharing with you today isn’t one that I taught in class, but it might as well have been. It’s one that I’ve added into the Megan’s Favorites category on this site, and it definitely deserves prime real estate there. Our local coop here in Seattle, PCC, makes a killer deli salad called Perfect Protein Salad and when I’m racing out the door to work, fully realizing I have nothing to eat for lunch, I zip in there for a quick container of it. And a coconut water if I’m feeling like really treating myself. Maybe some dark chocolate peanut butter cups, too. My employees can attest to the fact that it’s either that or a frozen burrito which just seems slightly sad on most days. So not enough. So … frozen.
What I love about this salad is that it feels so fresh and light yet also really substantial. It’s made from a base of whole grains and chickpeas with bits of carrot, celery, onion, fresh parsley, and herbs folded in — all tossed in a creamy blend of mayonnaise, lemon juice and apple cider vinegar. It’s quite humble in most ways: no trendy ingredients, no flashy seasoning. It’s the kind of salad I imagine was a real hit in the 70’s, and has miraculously hung around. Last month I decided to look online to see if anyone had tried to recreate the salad, and what I found was far better: PCC has published the recipe! All those mornings of pulling (speeding?) into the parking lot and racing in to grab a pint could’ve been at least partially avoided by having a homemade batch on hand. So while cooking up a pot of grains was about the last thing I felt like doing after cooking up many pots of grains all weekend with my students, I put some wheat berries on the stove Sunday evening and started chopping carrots, cucumber and parsley. We always have cans of chickpeas on hand, so it came together really quickly.
I called Sam into the kitchen when it was done and had him taste it, asking him to report back. What does it remind you of? He wasn’t answering as quickly as I’d hoped. C’mon, what is this?! His answer still wasn’t forthcoming, his overall enthusiasm for the salad perhaps not as fierce as mine. All of that’s to say, we both took it for lunch twice this week and were immensely happy and grateful that it was in the fridge. I’m newly inspired to walk the walk and cook pots of grains on the weekends like I used to do pre-Oliver, so that hearty salads are (almost) just as easy as grabbing that frozen burrito.
I find that this chickpea salad is perfect on its own for a light lunch. But if we’ve got an abundance of greens or if I’m feeling slightly fancy, I’ll serve it on a bed of arugula or spinach — with a few good stirs, I don’t even need dressing as the light sauce from the chickpeas dresses the greens perfectly.
A few ingredient notes: while this salad calls for spelt or wheat berries, you can use any hearty grain you like, really. Farro would be a strong candidate and barley would be great (just don’t overcook it). In the original recipe, they use a vegan mayonnaise, but I use the real thing here (and a little more of it). If you are vegan, feel free to make that substitution. I also think using half plain yogurt would work just fine. And fresh herbs! By all means swap them in. The original recipe calls for dried and I remained pretty true to it, but I think next time some fresh chives would be really nice.
Slightly adapted from: PCC
Add 3 cups of water to a medium pot and add the spelt berries. Over medium-high heat, bring the water to a boil. Reduce heat to low and cover, cooking until tender but still chewy, about 45 minutes. Drain and cool.
In a salad, bowl mix together cooked spelt berries, garbanzo beans, diced cucumbers, green pepper, celery, carrots, red onions, green onions and chopped parsley.
Mix together mayonnaise, lemon juice, vinegar, dill, salt, basil and garlic; pour over salad and mix well. Serve immediately or refrigerate. Salad will stay fresh for up to 4 days, covered, in the refrigerator.
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.