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.
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.