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.
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?)