Oliver turned four, Frances had her first taste of stuffing in California last week, and the weather’s cold enough for wool hats. Here we are. A new season, somehow. I didn’t expect to be quiet for so long here but, as Sam and I are known to say: #life.
Well here we are: what will presumably be the last post of 2018. Any second we'll start seeing all the "Top 9" posts on Instagram along with friend's musings as they look back on 2018 and look forward to what they hope to accomplish next year. As with all social media, I can't help but think that a tiny bit of this is performance or posturing for others, no? We have a few clear goals or intentions for the year ahead and then maybe we throw in a few that just sound good -- even to ourselves -- although we may know deep down we're not going to run a triathlon or take up watercolor painting. It could happen though, right?
Oliver turned three a few weeks ago, and we had a birthday party for him at the local children's museum with his closest friends. That morning we ate satsumas for breakfast as he helped me make the chocolate frosting for his cupcakes and put the sprinkles on each one. I told myself not to worry about the mess; three year olds aren't known for neatness in the kitchen (or anywhere). As with most kid birthday parties, it was exhausting and I barely had time to chat with any of the parents or even take many photos. You get home too overwhelmed to think about dinner and wonder why you went to the trouble in the first place. But then, of course, Oliver had a great time and was talking about it for days, and that's really all that matters. We settled into the birthday weekend with a special lunch and O's first haircut, and I baked up some of these Pecan Pie thumbprint cookies to test out for the holidays. They're basically pecan pie in cookie form; what's not to love?
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.
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.
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.
Hello, January! I still hear people out on the street and in my exercise class wishing one another a happy New Year and it brings a smile to my face -- there's something about this time of year that feels truly hopeful. It's not so much about goals or resolutions for me (although it used to be); it's more about checking in with each other, wishing one another well and doing better by ourselves and for ourselves. I remember one of the things I loved about being pregnant was how often people asked me how I was feeling -- from my caregivers to friends, family, acquaintances, the woman making my coffee on my way to work. And they waited for a genuine answer. They seemed to really care. What a revelation! To check in with people in a very real way about how they're feeling! Let's keep it up for at least a few more weeks, shall we?
I stood in line at the post office for well over an hour last week and Sam got his turn yesterday. We're not even procrastinating this year, but the season sure has a way of sneaking up -- full force -- on us all at some point, doesn't it? Many evenings over the past few weeks, I've been teaching holiday cooking classes at The Pantry, and because of this I knew my own baking may end up taking the backseat, so I did a little advance planning and made and froze dough ahead of time so things would feel less harried right. about. now. Because soft, fragrant cocoa-kissed gingerbread cookies should be the fun part -- waiting at the post office? That's another story.
While self care seems of paramount importance this time of year, I've come to loathe the term. It's just ... everywhere. Don't get me wrong, I can really get down with frequent yoga, baths, candles, and afternoon chocolate bars just because, but any time a phrase or sentiment catches on so quickly and fiercely in popular culture, I tend to withdraw. Between the daily awfulness on the news, the increased urgency around everyday errands because The Holidays Are Coming, and impending shipping deadlines, I often feel like I'm ricocheting from task to task rather than taking things in or appreciating them. And of course, this is the time of year to take things in and appreciate them, to show gratitude and thanks, to give thoughtfully and receive graciously. All of that? It's feeling like a lot right now.
While I'm never one to rush things this time of year, in staring at my little desk calendar this morning, it's become clear that Thanksgiving is on the horizon. This year, we're hosting Sam's family again for what will be the second time, and I'm not going to lie: I don't feel any more organized or together after Round 1. Last year there was a lot of turkey talk and I panicked (in hindsight, irrationally so), admitted I had no clue what I was doing, and delegated the bird to Sam who really waited until the eleventh hour (i.e. Wednesday) to buy the turkey and we ended up having a roulade situation instead of a traditional roasted bird, which was all fine and good. I made pie and cranberries and mashed potatoes. I recall making a chicory salad but no one seems to remember it, so it clearly didn't make that big of an impression. Sam's sister Christa brought her famous stuffed mushrooms and his nephew, Kevin, brought wine. People were happy, so I was happy.
But it does seem that, regardless if you've been hosting for two years or twenty, there's this constant impetus to regroup and reimagine and somehow do it all better each year. And on one hand, I get that: all the food magazines come, each claiming to have the end all and be all in revamped stuffing or the newest trick to mashed potatoes and it's all ... a little exhausting, isn't it? What I crave isn't so much the newest, edgiest stuffing but more the gold standards that we pull out every year. Our family's classics. We don't have those yet, but we're working on it. If it were up to Sam, this simple fruit crisp would be a candidate for sure, and if you're someone who trembles at the thought of homemade pie, this is a stellar way to make life a little simpler this year.
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.
Here we are: a rare, quiet afternoon with blocks strewn all over the living room floor, leftover coconut rice and cucumber salad for lunch, and the front yard strewn with fall leaves. I'm behind on business bookkeeping and was going to try to borrow a neighbor's lawnmower to mow our back grass, but instead thought I'd sit down and share a recipe with you, which I've been working away at slowly instead of rushing urgently, feeling like you all MUST HAVE CAKE in your life this very minute. I mean, don't get me wrong: this cake is a MUST HAVE CAKE kind of cake, but after listening to an episode of Death, Sex and Money with Ellyn Burstyn talking about the importance of having "should-less days," I've taken more time than usual with this one, giving myself a little more grace with all the niggling "shoulds" that prevail.
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).
And somehow, in the blink of an eye, it's the week before Christmas and we're racing around trying to fill cookie tins, pick up a few last minute gifts, make plans for our upcoming Bay Area visit (Oliver's first time to San Francisco!), string popcorn garland, and see as many friends as possible. While I tried to avoid it this year, the hustle and bustle is upon us and it looks like we're kind of succumbing to it -- everywhere, that is, except the kitchen: we're hosting Christmas dinner this weekend, and I've been really determined to keep things festive yet low key, special yet simple. So today I bring you one of my favorite appetizers of all time, lightened up a bit, made with a very doable ingredient list and tackled in under an hour. Oliver and Sam eat it by the spoonful and sneak bites of leftovers for breakfast. It's that good.
After we cleaned the kitchen and put away all the platters, I made myself a cup of tea and thought about what could be done differently. This Thanksgiving was our first year actually cooking and hosting and honestly, for two longtime ex-vegetarians, preparing a turkey feels like a pretty major task. The week before, we had family in town for Oliver's first birthday party and between baking cupcakes, ordering helium balloons and thinking through a simple brunch menu for close to 50 people, I felt pretty spent as far as entertaining was concerned. So Sam took on all things turkey, and I made my cranberry sauce and pie Wednesday night. A good compromise. And yet, it still felt like a lot for some reason and I found myself pacing around the house throughout the day, deliberately staying out of the kitchen and wondering at what point in adulthood things feel more natural (if not actually seamless) when it comes to entertaining during the holidays.
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.
We have a pile of flip-flops that rest by the back door all summer long, and I always know a change of season is on its way when the shoe clutter moves upstairs. The light in the dining room is different now - more golden and muted and shadowy and a few jackets have made their way out onto the coat rack. The farmers markets here are still bursting with late summer produce but we're now talking holiday plans and thinking about 'last hurrah' backyard gatherings. In the kitchen we're still eating a lot of tomatoes and eggplant, but I've started to make more oatmeal and polenta and have big plans for a batch of applesauce. But first, I want to share this colorful farro salad with apples, fresh herbs and Parmesan with you. It feels comforting and hearty yet still pulls off fresh and bright thanks to the abundance of chopped herbs -- perfect for these weeks of slow yet steady change and signs of things to come.
We've been waking up early these days with baby Oliver. I've always been a morning person, so this isn't particularly challenging for me -- although the middle of the night feedings have proven to be really tough. There has been a lot of finessing of sleep schedules and figuring out how Sam and I can both get enough to function well the following day. And just when we think we have it down ("gosh, aren't we lucky we have a baby that sleeps?"), everything changes. When I was in the final weeks of pregnancy and would talk about how I couldn't wait for the baby to be here, all of my friends with kids would advise me to sleep as much as possible -- and now I get it. I should've napped more. I should've listened. In getting up at odd times throughout the night with Oliver, I've had the chance to occasionally see some really brilliant sunrises (although not this past week which has been a particularly dark one in Seattle); I've made up some wacky baby tunes that I'm happy no one else can hear; and I generally have a good hour in which I can put him in the sling and walk briskly around the house trying to soothe him back to sleep while also putting away a dish or two or making a quick cup of coffee. In that hour, I can usually get something productive done and this past weekend that something was pear gingerbread.
I don't remember the first time I met Ashley Rodriquez, which in my experience is often the case with friendships that begin online and soon blossom to actual friendship. When I lived in San Francisco, I started reading Ashley's beautiful blog Not Without Salt and when I moved to Seattle a few years ago, we had the opportunity to actually grab coffee and share meals in person. She's someone I feel I've known for a long time, and I've been so looking forward to her first cookbook, Date Night In. I tested a few of the recipes for the book, and knew it was going to be filled with dozens more that I was excited to make. What I didn't expect was the rich narrative, detailing the challenges and joys of marriage and how Ashley and Gabe navigate having three young kids, vibrant careers and a romantic home life together (and if you know them personally, they do it with admirable style).
I intended on baking holiday cookies to share with you today, but when I sat down to brainstorm all I could think about, truly, was the morning porridge I've been making and how that's really what I wanted to send you away with. The holiday season always seems to zoom on by at its own clip with little regard for how most of us wish it would just slow down, and this year feels like no exception. We got our tree last week and I've been making a point to sit in the living room and admire the twinkle as much as possible. I have lofty goals of snowflakes and gingerbread men and stringing cranberries and popcorn, but I'm also trying to get comfortable with the fact that everything may not get done, and that sitting amongst the twinkle is really the most important. That and a warm breakfast before the day spins into gear. This multi-grain porridge has proved to be a saving grace on busy weekday mornings, and it reheats beautifully so I've been making a big pot and bringing it to work with some extra chopped almonds and fresh pomegranate seeds. While cookies are certainly on the horizon, I think I'll have this recipe to thank for getting us through the busy days ahead.
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?)
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.
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.
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 have a very full, spirited life. But sometimes when it comes down to the Christmas spirit it can be a little different. I can be a little tardy in this department. I always make it to the dance, but I can be fashionably late. Getting excited about Christmas can be funny when you're 32-- an in between time when, in my case, you're no longer a child but don't yet have children of your own. The magic doesn't descend upon you any longer. You have to keep your eyes peeled for it. You may even have to go and seek it out.
Most of the recipes I feature on the site are things I've bookmarked and planned out -- I don't often just whip something up on a whim, take a photo, and blog about it. Until this week. Don't get me wrong. I had a recipe planned for you (and it'll appear next week instead. And it's quite wonderful). But this week has brought about some bumps in the road and unexpected surprises. If you could call them that.
As many of you may recall, I lost one of my best friends earlier this fall. It's the saddest thing I've ever gone through. Sure, I've lost folks I love very much, but they've always been older and it's never been out-of-the-blue. But Jean was my age with dreams the size of Texas and a heart of solid gold. I'm talking 24-karat. I still have moments where something happens and I think about what a kick Jean would get out of it. Lady Gaga and Elton John at the Grammy's. Jersey Shore (no one loved bad reality TV more than Jean). This Friday would've been her 30th birthday, so I'm flying out to Boston to attend the first annual "Jean-a-bration." We're celebrating a big birthday and a big life that we all miss so dearly in a big way. And you know what? There's nothing that girl liked more than a party. I know she'll be proud. I've really never tried to celebrate an event or landmark when it's tinged with this much sadness--so we'll see how it goes. I guess there's no right or wrong way to go about it. I went to graduate school in Boston and haven't been back since. So I'm excited to visit all my old haunts. I'll take photos for you and share some of my favorite places to eat when I return. And if you have any favorite Boston spots, let me know! It's been a few years since I've been back, and I hear things have changed a bit, so I'd love any suggestions. In the meantime, I wanted to leave you one of the best comfort drinks I know, perfect for heavy hearts or just a really gray afternoon: Mexican hot chocolate made with Ibarra.
Over the past few days, I've seen seven apartments. And we're still looking. Some were unbelievably small, one only had heat "available" in one room (hmmm), and one of the landlords seemed legitimately insane. I actually dragged my mom around the city with me yesterday looking at places; she was a trooper. We did have many stops for fuel which helped ease the bustle/weirdness/stress/anxiety: Miette on Hayes St. for a gingerbread cupcake, La Boulange for a mini latte, and Paulette for an almond macaron to take home for later. I was thinking a cocktail was in order, but it was really only late afternoon. So I waited until we got home. Then it was time to put on a pot for mulled wine. I often have a glass of wine with dinner, but with the evenings becoming cold and even icy, why not have warm mulled wine instead? If you've never tried it, it has notes of citrus and warm spice and is perfect to ease the pain of dingy, disappointing apartments...or whatever it is that's ailing you at the moment. I got this recipe from Romney Steele's My Nepethe Cookbook. I have so many recipes bookmarked to try from the book that it almost seems silly that this simple drink recipe was the first up. If you missed it, Heidi over at 101 Cookbooks recently made Romney's Orange and Oat Scones and they looked awesome. Other stand out recipes I'm looking forward to trying are the Persimmon Pudding Cake, the Nepethe Cheese Pie, and Javier's Chile Rellenos. If you haven't seen Romney's book, it is a collection of recipes culled from her family's Big Sur Restaurant, Nepethe. While narrative cookbooks based around family lore are certainly nothing new, Romney's book is a bit different in that it speaks so much to how a singular place can color an upbringing, a family, a restaurant, and a community. Sara Remington's photography is absolutely stunning in that earthy, muted, moody style that displays and celebrates the landscapes and colors of Big Sur.