Last weekend I had the chance to get away to Portland by myself — actually, Sam came on Friday night and we went out to dinner to celebrate my birthday, but I drove him to the train station late Saturday morning and returned to my Airbnb to … take a very long nap. Friends who I talk to ask what I did in Portland, excitedly hoping for the best restaurant recommendation or shopping find. And I did a little of that for sure, but I spent half the time right on that Airbnb couch reading an entire book (!!), making myself almond milk hot chocolates, and brainstorming new creative projects.
When I sold Marge, Sam and I talked about me getting away somewhere to celebrate and mark the occasion. I’d had LA in mind, but the timing collided with the holidays and family visits and birthday parties and what not, so it just never happened. Portland seemed more immediately doable, and I’ve been wanting to check out Tusk for a long time (so good if you have the chance to go!). I’d wanted to check out a few places for a long time, and did – I had some fancy avocado toast and great coffee at Proud Mary, some more great coffee and Turkish eggs at Upper Left Roasters, ramen at Marukin, a drinking chocolate at Cacao before hitting the road – but the Portland I most needed, it seems, was in the downtime.
In Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost (a favorite of Sam’s), she quotes Meno asking, “How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?”
When I drove Sam to the train station on Saturday, he told me to try and let myself get bored at some point over the weekend: that’s when the real relaxation starts to kick in. When you have a toddler at home, it’s a rare opportunity to get away for three days solo just for the heck of it, and Sam was really hoping I’d get to clear my head, maybe think of a second book or future project. Of course, the stakes feel a bit high when you sit down at the table, telling yourself you only have two days to figure out your next book proposal, wondering why inspiration isn’t flowing as it should (Which is why I mitigated some of that anxiety with a good dose of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel).
But I did follow Sam’s overall advice and let myself get bored. I read more than I have in months (Little Fires Everywhere is great), challenged myself to eat out alone (not my strength for some reason), and had a chance to journal a bit and think through some ideas. No, I don’t have a book proposal. I don’t even have the most solid of book proposal ideas, really, or even the certainty that a book is the best move right now. But I did return feeling reenergized and eager to get into the kitchen and cook — something I haven’t really felt since the holidays. And I have a hunch that feeling reenergized in little pockets of life — like the daily act of cooking — will eventually lead to feeling new inspiration in other areas, too.
Most of you know the blog Smitten Kitchen, and turn to Deb’s recipes for great, approachable comfort food and meals you want to make right this second. You could say the same for her newest book Smitten Kitchen Every Day : I’ve bookmarked it heavily and appreciate her low-stress approach to cooking even more now that we have a kiddo in the mix. If you struggle with weeknight dinners like we do, this book is a must-grab.
This wild mushroom shepherd’s pie is a revamp of a classic my mom used to make for us growing up (hers was a ketchup-laced ground beef, frozen corn and mashed potato affair). In Deb’s vegetarian iteration, the fresh mushrooms are cooked down in a thick, savory sauce thanks to rehydrated porcini mushrooms, dried sherry, tomato paste and thyme (my contribution) and the whole thing is cloaked in a buttery layer of mashed potatoes and parsnips (also my contribution as we had a lonely one in the fridge). The perfect food for the first day of February, no?
This hearty recipe feeds 6 very hungry adults or 8 moderately hungry adults; round it out nicely with a simple green salad. While Deb uses all russet potatoes for the topping, I used half parsnips and half potatoes: parsnips have an earthy, slightly sweet flavor that works really well here. As for mushrooms, I used a mix of portobello, cremini and oyster, but using most (or all) cremini will work just fine.
Recipe ever so slightly adapted from: Smitten Kitchen Every Day
Prepare the mushrooms: In a small bowl, combine the dried mushrooms and boiling water. Set aside for 30 minutes (while you continue with the other steps), then drain, reserving the soaking water, and chop the rehydrated mushrooms into small bits. If the soaking water has any sand or grit at the bottom, pour it through a fine-mesh strainer.
Prepare the lid: Place the potatoes and parsnips in a medium pot, and cover them with a couple inches of salted water. Bring to a boil, and then simmer over medium heat for 12-15 minutes, until both are easily pierced in the center with a knife. Drain, scoop into a bowl and mash with a fork or potato masher. Add the butter, salt and pepper and stir. Add the crème fraîche and milk and stir to combine. If the potato mixture is thicker than you’d like and would be difficult to spread, add more milk, 1 tablespoon at a time. Taste and adjust the seasoning as needed.
Heat the oven to 400 F.
Cook the vegetables: In a large pan (4-quart, or an 11-inch deep skillet or braiser) heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion, carrots, pinch of salt and pepper, and sauté until the vegetables begin to brown ever so slightly, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute more. Add the fresh mushrooms, a pinch of salt, fresh thyme, and increase the heat to high, cooking the mushrooms until they brown and soften, releasing their juices, about 5-10 minutes.
Add the sherry and scrape up any stuck bits. Add the tomato paste, and stir to combine. Add the rehydrated mushrooms and their liquid, plus the stock (start with 1/2 cup stock and add more if mixture seems to dry). Simmer over medium heat for 10 minutes, or until mushrooms are coated in a thick sauce. Taste and season with additional salt and pepper if desired.
Bake the pie: In an oven-safe 2-3 quart baking dish, scoop the mushrooms into an even layer. Top with potato mixture, using the back of your spoon to spread it evenly over the top, all the way to the edges to form a seal. Bake for 25-30 minutes, until lightly browned on top. Garnish with additional thyme and parsley, if desired.
Do ahead: The shepherd’s pot pie keeps for 5 days in the fridge and longer in the freezer. Rewarm in a 350 degree oven for 20 to 25 minutes.
**Note: Deb calls for 1 cup of stock but I found that my mixture really only needed 1/2 cup as the mushrooms released quite a bit of liquid. I’d start conservatively with 1/2 cup and if the mixture needs more, add a little at a time: you want the filling to be saucy but not soupy/overly wet.
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?)