This very week, each year, I'm faced with immense vacation guilt. If you've been reading the site for awhile, you know that Sam and I visit my mom's cabin in Upstate New York for July 4th each year. Grandparents, aunts and uncles come. A small handful of cousins along with a few novels, a bit of sunscreen, and some old tennis rackets. What doesn't come along are work emails or granola orders or vendor spreadsheets. And at first I always feel like the world might come crashing down if I leave these things for one week. And then I always return and pick up right where I left off ... with a decided lack of world-crashing-down. So I'm reminding myself of that this morning, one day before we take off, with just enough time for me to share these delicious fresh banana blondies with you.
We are in the thick of June now, aren't we? Seems so sudden but the neighbor kid across the street bounces his basketball at all hours of the day instead of just after school, and we've had a few real sundress afternoons in Seattle. I remember when summer used to be this broad expanse of what seemed like endless time. There were trips to the local library with my mom, outdoor sprinklers, mid-day naps and sleepovers that included spoonfuls of raw cookie dough with my best friend, Kristin. It obviously looks different now. There is a noticeable lack of mid-day naps and raw cookie dough, that's for sure. There are deadlines and work obligations, but at least they're often punctuated with sunny mornings, outdoor cocktails at our funky little picnic table, occasional gardening and quick camping trips.
A few months ago I went to a food writing conference in San Francisco and attended a session on managing to make good money as a cookbook author or freelance writer. It was a late night session and I hadn't had a chance to grab dinner (or lunch, for that matter), so my friend Sarah and I slurped down a quick bowl of tortilla soup at the lobby bar and jetted over to grab our seats. In addition to questions about payment and negotiation, the organizers asked us to confidentially rate our level of happiness in our field of work. During the session, I soon realized I was the only one who rated my happiness below an 8. My reason -- which I happily shared that night: it's lonely work. There are days when I don't see anyone besides Sam and the woman at the grocery check-out line. You'd think a nice antidote to this would be the work I do with Marge where I'm on my feet in a very physical production kitchen -- and it is. But I'm still the main baker and, until quite recently, I was alone in the kitchen. So I generally go from writing at home in my office to baking alone in a commercial kitchen. For a person who generally likes people and enjoys talking and sharing ideas and inspiration, I'm out of luck on both counts. But slowly, over the past few weeks, I've started to realize things are changing. For the better -- and for good, I think.
We walked to the library last week and I had a strange realization standing in line watching Sam check out his usual massive stack of books: Will I ever have the time to read stacks of books again? I used to be much more of a reader than I am today -- a fact I'm not at all proud of. But when evening rolls around and the more formal workday ends, I find emails and other odds and ends creep in. Walking home from the library, I began obsessing over free time for reading, asking Sam if we'd ever be those two old people who study bird manuals and can recognize birds on walks. I want to have the time to read bird manuals someday. For now though, we're young and we're working a lot. We did sneak away on that one-night camping trip I told you about, and cooked some interesting, haphazard meals which I hope to share with you soon. For now though, for summer: a strawberry dessert recipe.
I have an office in the upstairs of our house, but I'm often found camped-out at the kitchen table or nudged into our small breakfast nook -- coffee cup, computer, and messy notes scattered about. We live in an old craftsman that boasts only one heating vent on the second floor, so in the winter it's freezing and in the summer it can get pretty stuffy and uncomfortable. Spring, on the other hand, is the season I claim it all back. Working upstairs with the morning birds, the one curious roof-top squirrel, and the changing afternoon light -- it feels like my world alone. It's not shared with household bills, neighbor kids walking by, or the UPS man ringing the bell. It's just me, and I have to say: I notice a change in my writing, in the cadence of my day and in my mood. Everything feels a bit calmer and less harried. There's a tiny, noticeable transformation. Hello from up here.
When I was single and living alone in the Bay Area, I made virtually the same thing for dinner each night. I ate meals quickly while in front of the computer. Or even worse: the television. This most often included what I call "Mexican Pizzas" which were basically glorified quesadillas baked in the oven until crispy. Sometimes, if I was really feeling like cooking, I'd whip up a quick stir-fry with frozen vegetables from Trader Joe's or a mushroom frittata using pre-sliced mushrooms. Mostly, though, it was Mexican Pizzas -- a good four or five nights a week. Today, thankfully, dinner looks a lot different. Meals in general look a lot different. How would I explain that difference? I think that ultimately how we feel about our life colors how we choose to feed ourselves and the importance that we place on preparing our own meals.
Spring has stumbled upon our doorstep. I know this for a fact because rhubarb has been popping up at the farmer's market two weeks in a row, and each time I visit I ask the vendors anxiously how long it'll be there. Four more weeks? Maybe five? Last year I bought so much that we ended up freezing quite a bit to use in pies, muffins and scones. I don't often have this stock-up mentality, but when it comes to rhubarb I find that it's fleeting and always disappears before I've had a chance to truly enjoy it. Fully.
When I lived in California, I'd often meet up with my friend Susan and hike the hills of Marin. Situated just North of San Francisco, Marin has some of the most beautiful trails -- in the spring, there'd be boisterous waterfalls and in the fall there were dry and humble hills. I owned a tattered hiking book that covered the region and over the phone the night before we'd meet, Susan and I would eagerly decide on a trail to tackle. The funny thing about the book? It wasn't at all accurate. It wasn't fact-checked. We got lost each and every time we used it. And for some reason, we kept coming back for more. I'm not really sure why, especially considering I'm not someone who favors getting lost off the beaten path just for the heck of it. Repeatedly. But I do know that, because of the poor directions, an adventure always seemed to sneak into our afternoon hikes. The book got us to the trailhead and then about halfway through, we realized we were very much on our own.
A few days ago, it snowed in Seattle. And the days leading up to it were cold with a capital C. I broke out my puffy vests and started wearing my wool hat on walks to the library. While I've been snatching up daffodils and tulips whenever I'm at the market, let's just say that it's not boating weather here yet. But it's close. We're on the brink and it seems everyone can sense it: Saturday afternoon the cherry blossoms popped out from every street corner and the sun was gracing the wood slats of our upstairs room. On Sunday we hiked to Wallace Falls where there were patches of unexpected snow, but there was also genuine bursts of sun and fresh pine air. Hikers were draped over rocks sharing their bagged lunches and at one point on our descent, we sat towards the side of the trail and closed our eyes, just soaking in the tentative warmth. There were dogs off leash, families snapping photos, and one lone frisbee. See? we're on the brink.
In the airport bathroom, it seemed as though all the women were changing into sequined sandals and little knit shirts with white capris. I hadn't quite thought through the outfit change scenario -- the fact that the temperature when I left Seattle at 11 p.m. might be different than it is in St. Barths at 3 p.m. Driving to the villa, the roads were narrow and cars slapped against palm leaves and bougainvillea as they rounded tight corners. 70-year old women walked topless on the beaches and iced tea cost eight dollars. Dinners were always eaten out, and it was balmy enough to leave with a sundress on and nothing more. Meals consisted of polenta fries, citrusy shaved artichoke salad, Sea Bream with butter and lemon, tuna tartare with avocado cream and thinly sliced radishes, lobster fritters cloaked in spicy aioli, and warm chocolate cake. And wine. Lots of wine. And then, with morning: a reset button.
A few weeks ago my Grandpa friended me on Facebook. I immediately texted my two sisters to verify that this was, in fact, Grandpa. They confirmed. And so, confused, I accepted his friend request and popped over to admire his page. It was, as you can imagine, quite bare. He'd accidentally noted that he was born in 1986 and his page boasted a small handful of friends, all quite elderly. I didn't think much of it at that time until early last week when my mom called to let me know that now Grandpa, apparently, knew everything we were up to. I imagined him incorporating this new bit of technology into his morning routine of checking stocks, doing calisthenics and having breakfast with my Gram at their little table on the porch in Florida. And then a funny thing happened: Gramp started posting on my wall. The first time was on Valentine's Day when he wished me a very happy day and hoped I was doing something fun for myself. I decided to write back on his wall, wishing him a nice afternoon and letting him know that I'd been pretty busy baking that week. Since then, we occasionally report on the weather and what we're up to. Many of the cousins do the same thing, so Gramp's wall is now peppered with cheerful family updates from near and far. There are a lot of reasons to be skeptical -- even scornful--of social media and the ways technology can sneak into our daily lives. We could all make a pretty lengthy list, I'm sure. But getting messages from your Grandpa that read, "I sit 85 and sunny here today" just isn't one of them.
This past Sunday morning found Sam in the living room reading the paper and listening to records and me taking mad scientist notes in the kitchen, working on this humble beauty. I'd stumbled across a recipe for a honey cake that I wanted to make but as I was converting the grams into standard cup measurements for you all, I began tinkering. And tinkering. And downright altering the recipe until it really was no longer the honey cake recipe I'd become enamored with. I just couldn't help but think it should have cornmeal in it, and that spelt flour would make for a really delicate crumb while whole-wheat flour would hold down the fort, so to speak. Sam was reading the Book Review; I was crossing my fingers, staring in at the cake and wondering what I'd done.
I always thought I'd be a teacher when I grew up. Like the dutiful first child that I tend to be, I went to school to be a teacher. I continued on to graduate school. I taught college freshman in Boston and moved on to teach high school freshman back in California. My mom was a teacher and I'd grown up spending time in her classroom (ahh, the hours of Oregon Trail!), hearing tales of her students, and witnessing her late-night grading sessions. It seemed so seamlessly that, all of a sudden, I had a classroom and tales of my own. Until I didn't. The teaching climate in California was (and still is) a tough one and finding solid work became impossible. People often ask if I miss teaching. I miss my students a great deal and I miss the act of teaching -- the challenge of thinking through how to present a piece of information or a structured lesson so that a classroom full of different kinds of learners could really "get it." I realized last week that, while I've been out of the academic classroom for a few years now, in many ways, I'm still doing the very same thing. Food writing and recipe development has, at its core, the act of learning and teaching. There are new kitchen skills to master and dishes to try; there are ways we take what we learn and make it our own based on tastes, ability level or preference; there are then ways we pass them on to others. Saturday night that process came to be in the form of a very fine roast chicken and a grapefruit chess pie.
Last week I didn't write a blog post because we were in one of two places, both without Internet. First, it's likely we were on an Amtrak train headed to Essex, Montana. Second, it's even more likely that we were actually tucked away in the lodge of the mountain inn where we were staying. As you likely already know if you've been around here for some time, Sam loves trains. I mean really, really loves trains. He goes on a 2-week trip each year to explore different parts of the country -- to actually see and get a sense of the bigness of the miles going by. If flying desensitizes us to distance, Sam keeps that sensitivity warm with his preference for trains (and cars, and ships, and walking. Really. He's an evangelist on this point). So last week, we not only took a train to a rather remote Montana Inn, but stayed in a restored 1895 caboose-turned-cabin while there. Sam was in heaven, as you can imagine. I was too, thanks to the miles and miles of snowshoe trails and complete and utter lack of technology. And witnessing Sam in heaven. That does it for me, too.
I moved to Seattle last February so this January business is all new to me. I remember pulling into the city in the U-Haul we lovingly named Hugh on a sunny February afternoon. We were eager with anticipation and hope, schlepping everything into the house in tee-shirts with a few strong helpers and occasional mild cursing. Seattle really made a showing that day. I'm gathering that wasn't exactly typical, although I really do appreciate the gesture. This year the winter mornings have not been warm enough to encourage tee-shirts. They've been quiet, extremely cold but -- lately -- startlingly sunny. That bright light, despite the layer of ice on my car, has helped get me to yoga when I'd much rather stay inside nursing a cup of coffee. It's been enough to inspire me to send letters to old friends, organize all of my tax documents, make some pretty great oatmeal and take long winter walks with Sam. I'm not letting myself have the space or the moment or the luxury to miss those warm summer days that now seem like a distant memory. I know they'll come back (they will, right?). For now, there's just putting one foot in front of the other, getting my work done, and sneaking out in that light whenever it decides to make a showing.
Harold is someone I've written about many times before, but not here. I wrote about Harold for my college entrance essay, for a graduate school speech, and even mentioned him in my book proposal last year. He's unassuming in appearance, but not in character -- you likely wouldn't look twice as you walked by him on the street. He's generous with his time and always up for helping when the cards are down. He has good taste in clothes, enjoys a great meal, and is always full of ideas for how to fill out a day just right. Before I boarded a plane for Ghana the summer of my junior year in college, I thought about Harold. When I got the jitters about leaving my friends and family to move to Seattle, I thought about Harold. The funny thing is, Harold isn't real (bear with me here. Really). He's a character from Harold and the Purple Crayon, a children's book my mom read to me as a little girl. About ten years ago, she gave me a copy for Christmas, and it sits on the bookshelf in my office today. If you're not familiar with the story, Harold's a young boy armed with a purple crayon and he thinks through what he'd like to surround himself with -- what he'd like his world to look like--and then simply draws it and it comes to be. Want a full moon tonight and a long evening walk? Harold breaks out the crayon. Care for a long slide to slide down on a sunny afternoon? Harold draws it. The idea behind the book and the charming character of Harold is that we can all create the day we wish to have, the month we really need, or the year we hope for if we use our purple crayons carefully and deliberately -- if we simply imagine how we'd like for it to look and set out to begin making it happen. So on New Years Day, I thought about Harold again. I thought about how I'd like this year to look for myself, for Sam and I, and for my business.
This, my friends, was the view from my car window on the drive down from Seattle to the Bay Area. Remember when I promised photos from the coast road and a recipe for Christmas morning? Well that was quickly absorbed by a very different kind of trip than we'd originally expected. A snowier trip and a much less scenic one (as we had to take an alternate route), although one filled with ample memories and cups of gas station hot chocolate. I didn't expect for the blog to be silent during the holiday week, but sometimes you can't control these things. So I sincerely hope that you had a wonderful, restful time with family and friends and are slowly getting back into the swing of things. This year, we spent a lot of time at home with family instead of rushing around to visit various new spots around San Francisco. We did a little cookie baking, visited Sam's favorite record store in the Haight and saw many old friends. We drank martinis, endured a period of holiday rain of the likes I haven't seen in years, and snuck out when the rain finally let up to run or walk the neighborhood. We had a lazy pajama-cloaked Christmas morning complete with numerous cups of coffee and a team-effort eggs benedict on toasty bagels smeared with avocado. I'm reluctant to head back but also love the feeling of a new year and looking ahead towards all that it may bring. Maybe on our drive back, I'll actually get to snap a few coast photos. Cross your fingers! In the meantime, I wanted to share just a handful of favorite recipes from 2012 on the chance you've got time and are inspired to cook this week. I'll see you back here very soon, feeling newly inspired and refreshed after such a nice break from our often busy day-to-day life back in Seattle.
The Saturday before my manuscript was due, Sam and I went out to get our first Christmas tree together. I was exhausted, it was raining, and I wasn't feeling supremely festive but it was the day that fit in with both of our schedules. Once I got to the lot, things changed. There were all kinds of choices - Douglas Firs, Silver Tips, Scotch Pines. We discovered that we have the same taste in trees (full and maybe a touch squatty), bought some garland, had one of the Boy Scouts snap our photo, and stopped for chowder at Ivar's on the way home. It was about 4:30 p.m. and we were the youngest ones at the restaurant by a good forty years. Amidst the electric train chugging around by the check-out counter, flashing holiday lights, and repetitive music, we shared greasy french fries and chowder and declared that we should do the same the following year. A few days later, we found ourselves at The Sorrento Hotel sipping spiked cider and hot buttered rum while writing holiday cards. There were families dressed up in holiday garb, live music and a roaring fire, and I told Sam we should come back next year. He smiled and nodded, apparently thinking the same thing.
Hello from the other side! I realize we haven't been back here for a few weeks, and I'm sorry for dropping into a little black hole. My cookbook deadline was Monday, so I've been a writing and editing machine, stepping away from the computer to occasionally clean the house like a crazy person or throw together a most random lunch or dinner. But somehow it all came together although there was something strangely anti-climactic about sending it off: In the days when you'd print out your manuscript and have to walk to the post office and seal it up carefully to send to the publisher, I imagine it would feel much more ceremonial and important --you could stroll out of the building and do a cartwheel. Or high-five a fellow customer on your way out. Instead, I was sitting in our dining room on an incredibly rainy, dark Monday afternoon unable to hit "send." My sister Zoe told me to just close my eyes and do it. Sam gave me the thumbs up. So around 3 p.m. that's what I did. With the click of a button, just like that: it was finished.
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.
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.
Spice Cookies from the new cookbook, Jerusalem, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi
I wrote to a friend today lamenting the fact that our fridge is filled largely with leftover grains. And some beer. It's like college, with farro and wheat berries replacing the cold pizza. I had grand visions, when Sam was on the train, that I'd try a few recipes I'd been cutting out of magazines and make proper meals for myself. There were to be the green chile enchiladas or the Moroccan braised chicken. Or even a simple homemade tomato sauce. Instead, I ate pudding. And pumpkin beer. The first night I thought it kind of novel and fun: look, it's like when I lived alone! The second night I admitted it to only Sam on the phone. The third night I thought there may be something wrong. So much for the enchiladas and braised chicken. So much for that tomato sauce. Clearly what I really wanted was some chocolate pudding.
And suddenly, it's fall. I find that realization always comes not so much with the dates on the calendar as it does the leaves on the ground, the first crank of the heat in the morning, the dusky light on the way home from an evening run. Because we were gone on the train for nearly a week, I feel like fall happened here in Seattle during that very time. I left town eating tomatoes and corn and returned to find squashes and pumpkins in the market. It was that quick. And so, it only seemed fitting that I make this soup, one that has graced the fall table of each and every apartment (and now house) I've ever lived. In fact, I'm surprised that I hadn't yet made it for you here, and delighted to share it with you today.
I'm writing this on a train around 6 p.m. about an hour North of New York City. To my right is the Hudson River and to my left, one Sam catching up on a few emails. The sun is making its way down ever so slowly and my black ballet flats are more than ready to trade in carpeted train hallways for city streets and firm ground. This is our fourth day on the train. We left Seattle clutching a week's worth of clothes, enough work to keep us busy on the train, a few novels, a bottle of wine, a cocktail in a flask (thank you, Brandon), rye in another flask (thank you, Sam), a few cameras, and these crackers. Final destination: Bruce Springsteen in New Jersey. With a quick stop-over to visit my sister Zoe and her boyfriend Stefan in the West Village, eat meatballs, and check out a few bookstores.
This time of year always comes quietly. I call these weeks "bridge weeks": it's warm during the day and tomatoes and corn are still at the markets, but the light is a touch more golden and it's chilly enough in the mornings and evenings to grab your closest sweater. While fall is my favorite season, I find myself going inward a bit in September, wanting to experience the change of seasons without the Internet or TV forcing it upon me, or Starbucks announcing what seasonal drink I'd likely crave at any given time. We're fickle people, aren't we? One week eating stone fruits and discussing the dog days of summer and the next diving head-on into pumpkin breads and cookies. This is why I don't read many food blogs at the very beginning of fall because I'm not quite ready to jump right into pumpkin breads and cookies. Here at our house, there are still tomatoes to slice, warm walks to take, and backyard picnic table with my name on it.
Our days are a shuffle between yes and no, between obligations that must be tended to and doing something for ourselves to maintain our curiosity and excitement. To being a good partner, friend, daughter, sister. A negotiation, a tug and release, a push and pull. Oftentimes the pendulum swings drastically to one end, where work overtakes the day-to-day shuffle and dinner dates and lake walks and calls with old friends take the backseat. Then there are the moments when there are house guests, obligation emails, car headlights to replace, mouse traps to set and dentist appointments to keep. Work gets pushed aside, you start feeling guilty and become acutely aware of this funny thing called balance. When referring to the fullness of her summer days recently, Kelsey from the lovely blog Happy Yolks wrote: "We are living the length and width of our days." I love this sentiment for its deliberateness (hey, Wednesday, I'm going to live the heck out of you!). For me lately, it's not as much about camping and hiking and taking advantage of the lingering summer sunshine, but about taking each day and trying to squeeze an increasingly stressful work life, a little play, time with Sam, an actual home cooked meal or a trip to the grocery store into each little nook and cranny of a day. Without going crazy. Or making Sam crazy. Or both.
We arrived in New Jersey late one morning last month in a little red rental car. We'd just come from a meandering drive from my mom's cabin in upstate New York, dotted with many stops in small towns to visit houses from Sam's childhood. Soon we found ourselves at Sam's mom's place in Mt. Holly, before us a feast of stuffed grape leaves and fattoush. This was the food Sam grew up on, and the food he's made for me a few times to show me as much. He makes tabbouli brimming with parsley and mint (we once had a tabbouli showdown in the middle of the produce aisle at Berkeley Bowl, me deeming him crazy for buying so much parsley, he deeming me crazy for the big bag of bulgar wheat I was clutching). This is his comfort food, the food he's made when we have dinner parties. The food that reminds him of home. Unlike Sam, I don't necessarily have one distinct type of food I ate growing up that's tied to my ethnicity or a distinct place, so all the talk that night of buying pita from The Phoenician Bakery and how long to steam grape leaves was not an experience I share with my parents or sisters.
Hello there, August. You have brought with you wonderful tomatoes which I've been eating almost daily, outdoor weddings, a new camera to play with, and sunny clear mornings. You've brought iced coffee with a touch of simple syrup, dinner with friends outside, and nights spent sharing a beer while watching the Olympics (those runners!).
Time moves differently in the summer. I swear this to be true. It was one of the crueler jokes bestowed upon me when I began teaching: you put all of your energy and every dream of a chunk of freedom into this magical thing, summer vacation, and it'd be over before you could blink. I'm feeling a little of that as I sit here now with just a few days of July left, writing to you on a foggy Friday afternoon with a messy kitchen, a broken washing machine, and an empty refrigerator. Don't get me wrong: it's been a good day. We shared a messy biscuit sandwich for lunch from a new spot downtown and lingered over coffee longer than usual before starting the work day. A good week, really. But time has been moving quickly and I'm sure you notice that, too.