Yesterday's plan was to make this simple Tuscan White Bean and Fennel Soup for dinner. Not a crazy plan to execute. Very doable, in fact. I shopped for the ingredients in the morning, and planned to start the soup before picking Oliver up from daycare, looking forward to him proclaiming "ZUPA!" (his word for "soup") like a merry Italian grandfather when he walked in the door. The reality was my kid ate a hot dog, cherry tomatoes and string cheese for dinner; Sam and I had ramen, and I finally got around to tackling this soup around 9 p.m. when the house was quiet. So it goes.
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.
We returned home from San Francisco on New Years Eve just in time for dinner, and craving greens -- or anything other than baked goods and pizza (ohhhh San Francisco, how I love your bakeries. And citrus. And winter sunshine). Instead of driving straight home, we stopped at our co-op where I ran in for some arugula, an avocado, a bottle of Prosecco, and for the checkout guys to not-so-subtly mock the outlook of our New Years Eve: rousing party, eh? They looked to be in their mid-twenties and I figured I probably looked ancient to them, sad even. But really, there wasn't much sad (or rousing, to be fair) about our evening: putting Oliver to bed, opening up holiday cards and hanging them in the kitchen, and toasting the New Year with arugula, half a quesadilla and sparkling wine. It wasn't lavish. But it's what we both needed. (Or at least what we had to work with.) Since then, I've been more inspired to cook lots of "real" food versus all of the treats and appetizers and snacks the holidays always bring on. I made Julia Turshen's curried red lentils for the millionth time, a wintry whole grain salad with tuna and fennel, roasted potatoes, and this simple green minestrone that I've taken for lunch this week. Determined to fit as many seasonal vegetables into a bowl as humanly possible, I spooned a colorful pesto on top, as much for the reminder of warmer days to come as for the accent in the soup (and for the enjoyment later of slathering the leftover pesto on crusty bread).
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.
Last weekend it was so windy – apocalyptically stormy, you could say – that our tent at the farmers market was uprooted by gusts of wind that were not messing around. I wasn't there, but apparently despite being heavily weighted down and with four customers holding onto each corner, it quite literally blew down the block. Sam, from across town, was reporting trees falling on every block and traffic lights out across the city. The next morning on a walk with Oliver around Green Lake, we were met with that same biting wind and ended up retreating for a hot chocolate instead. 'Tis the season in Seattle: we all get a little giddy and ahead of ourselves when we spot the cherry blossoms and daffodils, and I always trick myself into thinking that with the start of daylight savings time, summer must be right around the corner. In truth, before we had Oliver, we'd often travel somewhere sunny for a little mood boost around this time of year. When I moved from California, many friends – other (empathetic) 'expats' now living in the Pacific Northwest – recommended this: if you know what's good for you, they'd all say, go find the sun in February or March, and we would follow that advice faaaaaithfully. But with a baby, this just isn't where our priorities are this year, and I've found myself relying on other antics like buying out of season strawberries, drinking white wine with dinner, buying a new pair of sandals that likely will not see the light of day for the next two months, and making big, colorful pots of feel good, springy soup. Let's not kid ourselves: Cherry blossoms or not, Seattle's no Palm Springs when it gets down to bathing in the sunlight. But if you step outside onto your little porch, smell the honeysuckle blooming, take notice of the longer, lighter days and think about how you simply can't wait to see your baby crawling around on the sand when it's warm enough to stroll down to the beach, it starts looking better in its own light.
One of the things I wanted to accomplish before really returning to work in earnest was to print some of our honeymoon photos and get them into an album. This project has taken far longer than expected as I find myself daydreaming about the craggy streets of Naples and meeting up with our friends Mataio and Jessica for a late night slice of pizza which we ate sitting on the sidewalk before embarking on an aimless but wonderful stroll of the city. There are photos of our balcony by the sea, most with tanned limbs, sandy sandals and a Campari and soda gracing the periphery of the frame. There was the little grocery store up the hill from our apartment on the Amalfi Coast that had the sweetest, tiniest strawberries and the best yogurt in little glass jars. Tomatoes drying in the sun, Aperol spritzes and salty peanuts before dinner at the bar across from the church square where all the neighborhood kids played kickball. As I sit here typing this now, photos remain scattered on my desk and it's likely they may not make it into the proper slots in the album anytime soon. Of course, they have me dreaming of sunshine and long days with little agenda, but they also have me thinking about the simplicity of our meals in Italy and how truly easy it was to eat well. Coincidentally, a few days ago Rachel Roddy's lusty new cookbook (can we call it lusty?!), My Kitchen in Rome, arrived at our doorstep. Clearly it was time to set the photos aside and get into the kitchen.
Morocco is a country full of color, noise, bustle. It's a vibrant, bold, beautiful country and just so happens to be the one place I've had a hard time explaining to people when they ask how our time there was. In many ways, it's different from most places I've traveled because there aren't a lot of definitive restaurants or cafes you 'must try' nor did we have a long list of tourist must-sees. Sure, in the cities we visited there are beautiful mosques and madrasas and gardens and museums -- and we saw many of them. But really, we spent most of our time in Morocco wandering, people watching, letting ourselves get lost within the markets and souks and streets. The answer to the question, 'what should we do today?' was usually met with the sentiment that we wanted to get out and just see it all. And despite all the ways that the days were frenetic and impossible to plan or predict, there were a few constants: the prayer call that would sound over loudspeakers on top of the minarets throughout the city a number of times a day, and a spicy bean and noodle soup that was often served with lunch or dinner.
I call this time of the year, this month of September, the "bridge month." When I made pies for a living, I called them "bridge desserts," those slices of jammy sweets that'd have one foot definitively in fall and the other stubbornly in summer. That's always how I feel come September: eagerly anticipating the changing light of the new season, but also so very hesitant for the long days to creep away. And so, today, a warm weather recipe we can all nurse for a good month more: a silky, simple gazpacho that we had for lunch (and dinner) many times last month. And given our amazing tomatoes this year, I'm hoping for a few more rounds. I went many years without making gazpacho at home; I always find that it falls into one of three camps: the good, the bad, or the ugly. And most recipes I found in the past were firmly up for Ugliest Gazpacho of the Year Award -- which wouldn't matter if they were really delicious, but that was never the case. Now how could you mess up gazpacho, really? I find that the recipes that call for bread blended into the soup always end up murky and off-color, and just not at all appealing. I don't particularly love a lot of onion blended into the soup itself, and I've seen a great many recipes that are heavily spiced with chile seasonings and it always baffles me as to why we can't just let the tomatoes shine. If you're buying ripe, in season tomatoes you need little else.
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.
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.
Something funny happens when you live with someone instead of dating them from afar. You learn little nuances about each other's behavior, see the bottom-of-the-barrel sweaters, take out the trash, and buy underwear and shampoo together. Sam calls my beloved furry slippers old lady slippers and, to be fair, they kind of are. And I've become well acquainted with his holey "sick sweater," his eagerness to retrieve the mail in the early afternoon, and his uncanny ability to drink more tea than anyone I've ever known. Also, I'm learning things about myself. Like the fact that, apparently, most people don't eat a whole grapefruit when they sit down for breakfast. According to Sam, they stop at a half.
The week between Christmas and New Years is kind of magical, isn't it? A lot of people take it off from work, others put in half-days, and there's a palpable slow down to the hustle and bustle. There are loads of laundry, long walks, lounging with new books, and wishing complete strangers a Happy New Year. Just because. It's always seemed to me that there's this collective hush or sigh -- a kind of release and a relishing in the quiet.
I didn't know this until last week, but Seattle has a way of gripping you in the fall. Sure, our leaves change in the Bay Area, and the light basks down glowingly in the afternoons and evenings in a much different way than it does in the summer. We get golds and touches of amber. Because I went to graduate school on the East Coast, I'm used to boldly-hued falls, but in Seattle the colors are more muted and in this way maybe even more beautiful. The air is brisk and crisp and you need to break out your coat. A scarf would be good, too. You may want to even leave the heat on overnight or turn it on the second you patter out of bed to take the chill off.
Pulling off the farmers market this past weekend was a bit of a challenge. I had flown back from Seattle Friday afternoon, knowing full-well that the evening would consist of harried hours of crimping and baking, filling and frosting. And I was okay with that. I wanted as much time there as possible.
I've spent three weeks baking in my commercial kitchen for Marge. I'm still running around doing what feels like hundreds of errands each week, but things are starting to become a bit more streamlined. I've done two farmer's markets and a few great local events. I'm meeting lots of new folks who live nearby, making friends with other vendors, and oftentimes selling out before the market even ends. For me Saturday mornings are like a big ol' bake sale and I couldn't imagine anything else I'd rather be doing. Friday nights, however, are a much different story. The night before the farmer's market always brings about many hours of baking, packaging, usually burning myself once or twice, occasionally getting aluminum foil caught in the convection oven (lesson learned: no aluminum foil in the convection oven!), witnessing occasional drug deals out back, listening to old classic rock on the radio, talking to myself, pacing. And more pacing. For the past few weeks, there's been very little sleep, lots of anxiety, and questioning if this is really how I want to spend every Friday night into eternity.
First things first: thank you so, so much for all of your amazing solo-eating suggestions, and cooking-for-one book suggestions! I'm overwhelmed by your comments and emails...and dinner ideas. Where to begin? Grilled cheese, pasta with bacon, scrambled eggs for dinner...Yes, please. The majority of the advice I've gotten from family, friends, and you all here is that time continues on whether you like it or not. It just does. And through that, things get easier. I'm trusting you on this one. I just finished re-reading The Hours a few nights ago. Have you read it? I think Michael Cunningham captures the intricacies of character, relationships and moments really beautifully. Towards the end of the novel, I found myself rereading this passage over and over: "We live our lives, do whatever we do, and then we sleep--it's as simple and ordinary as that. A few jump out of windows or drown themselves or take pills; more die by accident; and most of us, the vast majority, are slowly devoured by some disease, or if we're fortunate, by time itself. There's just this for consolation: an hour here or there when our lives seem, against all odds and expectations, to burst open and give us everything we've ever imagined, though everyone but children (and perhaps even they) knows these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult. Still we cherish the city, the morning; we hope, more than anything, for more." To me, this paragraph--in so few words--speaks to the human condition more than anything I've ever read. It's hard. We lose friends and relationships and have difficulty finding our calling or our life's passion. But then there are evenings when you look around the table at friends you haven't seen for ten years and smile, or you bite into the perfectly crisp apple--or those mornings when a hot shower feels like a gift from the Gods. Those are the simple, ordinary moments that give us a gleam that hope is justified. So along with all of your fabulous meal suggestions, I'm going to seek out these moments like nothing else right now--the hours that give a glint (or a full on beam) of hope and light. And spring, sunshine in San Francisco, and asparagus in the markets helps, too. So onward, shall we?
There's nothing like making a hearty soup to break in a new kitchen. And you know how it is when you move: until you get the pantry stocked and a few items in the fridge, there's a lot of pizza and canned soup going on (or, in our case, burritos). So it was a welcome break in routine this morning to wake up to a stormy Monday, hot coffee waiting in the kitchen, and some free time to get busy in the kitchen. Finally. Now a quick business note before we talk about minestrone. You've probably noticed: A Sweet Spoonful got a face lift! Have a peek around. There are some new features and pages, giving you the ability to print recipes, read travel pieces and restaurant reviews, and browse previous posts via photos. I also added a little Amazon page: just things I like and use often in the kitchen that I think you may like, too. The new site just went live a few days ago and somehow I've lost a lot of subscribers in the transition (not really sure how), and there have been a few mass email snafus (hopefully we've stopped that from happening in the future). So please make sure your readers/RSS are up to date and/or that you've subscribed via email in the box to the left. I'd love for you to stick around! Now on to the important stuff: hearty, winter soups. Minestrone is an Italian staple and is often known as "the big soup." It's kind of ironic that I found this recipe and set out to the store to purchase all of the ingredients (as our kitchen is still under- stocked at this point) because traditionally, this was a soup that you kind of add whatever's in the fridge--from meats, to rice and pastas, to vegetables. Most minestrone's I've had in the past are thick, tomato-based soups. But I was drawn to this particular recipe because it called for pancetta (hello!) and instructed you to simmer the soup with a Parmesan rind. Intriguing. It's more of a brothy soup, with lots of vegetables and incredible flavors. Perfect for a stormy afternoon...of which we've been having quite a few of around here lately.
I recently bought myself a present. I'd heard amazing things about David Tanis's book A Platter of Figs. Cooks I respected loved it, I kept running into it at bookstores, and then I was visiting my sister in Seattle and saw it on the shelf at Delancey That's it. I was sold. I'm not sure how to even talk about this book because it's so unlike any other. It's not just a cookbook. Christopher Hirsheimer takes beautiful, spare photographs that really highlight the integrity of the food. And then there's David's recipes. He focuses on simplicity and seasonality. In his introduction, he notes "The platter of figs is a metaphor for the food I like. Fresh ripe figs are voluptuous and generous, luxurious and fleeting. And beautiful." If you're not familiar with David's story, he grew up in Ohio, moved to California, took odd jobs in Bay Area kitchens, landed a pizza and salad gig at Chez Panisse and eventually stayed to run the upstairs cafe. The draw to open his own restaurant eventually brought him to Santa Fe. He was extremely successful there, but business became tough in a depressed economy and David moved back to CA...and to Chez Panisse. At the time, he shared the downstairs restaurant chef position with Jean-Pierre Moulle. They split up the week. Then in 2001, an opportunity arose for David to move to Paris. Initially saddened, Alice Waters came up with the perfect plan: instead of splitting up the week, they could split up the year! And that was that: David cooks for six months out of the year at Chez Panisse and during the other six months he hosts a private dining club in Paris, preparing meals in his tiny galley kitchen. In talking about initially meeting David in the early days and asking him to cook lunch for her, Waters notes,"It was that lunch's radical simplicity that won me over." And that radical simplicity is exactly what drew me to A Platter of Figs. The book is split into seasonal, themed menus. For example, under Fall you'll see "The Bean Soup Lunch" or "Dinner for a Tuscan." David's writing is visual and visceral: he paints lovely narratives before each menu, talking about the weather, the seasons, the light at a certain time of day. You could buy this book with little intention to cook any of the recipes and still enjoy it. I promise.
This is my favorite soup recipe. Ever. I discovered it in Vegetarian Times when I was a vegetarian and living in Boulder, CO (fitting, I know). But more than anything, this soup reminds me of snowy afternoons in Boston. A whole pot would feed me for a good five days. As a graduate student, I'd stock up on bread, butter, greens, coffee and milk, plenty of tea, and a chocolate bar and I could hibernate for quite some time. The smell of the fennel seeds cooking in olive oil brings me right back to my pink-tiled Brookline kitchen. I'd sit at the bay windows, looking out at elderly Russian women in vibrant silk scarves pushing their shopping carts back from the corner grocery store, and college kids with backpacks and arms of books racing to catch the bus. I'll always equate the smell of this soup with that light-filled pink kitchen, fallen leaves whipping by the windows, and the fading Eastern afternoon light.