Wednesday, October 18, 2017

A few thoughts about the dinner hour (and a recipe for ginger pork meatballs and coconut rice)

I used to ride the train to commute to downtown LA. At the end of the day, to return to Union Station, I would first catch the metro from Pershing Square. In my experience, anytime after 3:30pm, the metro would be packed with fellow commuters and when the doors would open, a river of us would spill out, flooding the metro platform and the staircases to the train connections. As we dutifully marched, pounding the stairs, the steady rhythm of footfalls seemed to reverberate "Get-Home-Get-Home-Get-Home". I liked, for that brief moment, feeling connected to the strangers around me, all of us sharing a common goal.

When I go to the grocery store during the post-work pre-dinner rush, I get a similar feeling. It's a frenzy as everyone has stopped in to snag whatever is needed to transition from work/school/after school activity to dinner table. No matter our backgrounds and circumstances, we all are engaged with a similar focus: we need to feed ourselves, to feed our families.

I think the weekday dinner presents a particular kind of meal challenge. For the most part, we are fine eating the same breakfast for weeks on end. If you're like me, you actually love the consistency of a breakfast routine. For lunch, a little more variety is appreciated, but no one expects a show: leftovers, lunchables, PB&J, its all acceptable. Then there's dinner- at the end of a day in which we're exhausted and rushed, it taunts us with expectations- to be delicious, to be homemade, to be interesting, to be healthy, to be filling, to be not too inexpensive, to be on-time, etc.

Since moving, I have embraced the dinner hour in a new way. At first it was exciting- I have time to cook! But after two weeks, I realized I was bored with my old standbys and that my weeknight meals had previously relied on eating out and Trader Joes solutions more than I thought. I started to wonder- what do other people eat for dinner? How are other people pulling this off? What can I make that won't put me in the kitchen for three hours? I love cooking with a crockpot, but too many meals in a row and they all start to take on the same texture.

I have learned that when I feel stuck it is an opportunity to embrace my curiosity and love of learning. If I don't know something, I should just learn it. So, over the last several weeks I've made a conscious effort to learn more about making dinner. I thought I would share a few of the resources I have found helpful and one new recipe that I absolutely love.

I would also like to learn from you: what are your favorite weeknight dinner meals? What is your menu planning strategy? What short-cuts do you find helpful? I'd welcome a conversation around the Dinner Hour.

I'd like our conversation to strike the balance of tone between "it's all so easy" and "ugh, cooking is a drag." I suspect, most days, we vacillate somewhere in-between. While I clearly love the internet and food blogging, I worry about a down-side to all the pictures of beautiful food out there. Does it cause us to put unrealistic expectations on ourselves? Recently, I read this article that said Americans are cooking less and less. It really bummed me out:

"...suggests that our fondness for Food TV has inspired us to watch more Food TV, and to want to eat more, but hasn’t increased our desire to cook. In part, Food TV has raised our standards to discouragingly high levels: How many of us really feel confident in our cooking skills after watching Iron Chef?"

I am encouraging myself to engage in daily cooking and setting aside the need, or pressure, to do it perfectly.

Here are some dinner time resources I have found helpful and inspiring lately:

"Dinner: Changing the Game" by Melissa Clark

  • Hands down, the book I am cooking out of most often these days. I borrowed a copy from the local library and have extended my check-out three times. I share one of the recipes below. The big aha for me is how many of the recipes use the broiler to cook dinner. Fast cooking time and hands-off? I'm in. (The book is due back this week at the library and I've been snapping pics with my phone of recipes I still want to try!)
  • Favorite recipes: Vietnamese ginger chicken, ginger pork meatballs (see recipe below), cumin chicken meatballs, fusilli and roasted cauliflower with capers.

"Small Victories" by Julia Turshen

  • The best compliment I can give this book is that it stays on my kitchen counter because I consult it so frequently. Not only are the recipes great but I have picked up tips and techniques  which make me feel smarter and more confident in the kitchen. 
  • Favorite recipes: Julia's Caesar, roasted radishes with kalamata dressing, roasted red cabbage, pickled red onions, "seven things to do with a can of chickpeas", raspberry jam buns with creme fraiche frosting.

"Mad Hungry" by Lucinda Scala Quinn

  • Quote I love: "Sometimes a home cook's challenge isn't just to make homemade food to also make do with what you have on hand." 
  • Favorite recipes: chicken enchiladas salsa verde, spicy indian chickpeas, cucumber yogurt salad 

"Dinner: a Love Story" by Jenny Rosenstrach

  • Published in 2012, I feel like this book sort of kicked off the latest wave of practical cookbooks. It is an ode to the dinner hour, with lots of practical wisdom and recipes included. 
  • Favorite recipes: Confession- I have not yet cooked anything out of this book but I do find it very inspiring to read. I think this totally still counts. 
"Slow Cook Modern" by Liana Krisoff 

  • This book was just released and so I have not yet had a chance to browse it. The recipes are for crockpots and I own another book by Liana Krisoff and really love it. This is at the top of my Christmas Wishlist.

I loved novelist Rumaan Alam's recent piece in epicurious about cooking for his family. I'm particularly inspired by how he saves up veggie scraps to freeze for later use in stocks. So clever!

On Instagram, I get inspiration from:
  • In her instagram stories, Mad Hungry author Lucinda Scala Quinn's shares clips of making family dinners and it's all straightforward and unpretentious. I learn just by watching her work.
  • Sarah Carey is the editorial director at Martha Stewart Living and most mornings preps her family's dinner before she leaves for work. On her ig feed she posts a picture and notes about how she puts it together. Again, it's unpretentious and she also shares good ideas for using up leftovers.
  • Deb Perelman with Smitten Kitchen is always inspiring and lately she's started using an instant pot. I'm looking forward to learning from her. (Also, her new cookbook looks like it may also be a good resource for weeknight cooking.)
Finally, I enjoyed this piece in Bon Appetit from The Cut editor Stella Bugbee about how she fits in meal prep time to her day. It was like a little light bulb went off in my brain: oh, just like how I prep for parties in advance, I can actually do prep work within each day to get a jump start on dinner.

ginger pork meatballs with cilantro and fish sauce and coconut rice
from "Dinner: Changing the Game" by Melissa Clark

This dinner was crazy good. It has all the fun stuff going on with a balance of salty, sweet, sour, crunchy, cream and spicy. I served it with a simple side of sliced radishes but you're welcome to put more effort into it. (I think the roasted green beans would do nicely.) My husband and I easily ate through a sheet pan of the meatballs. Next time I make them, I am for sure doubling the recipe and if you're serving more than two people, I'd recommend the same. My favorite part is how easy it is to broil the meatballs.

1 pound ground pork
1/3 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves
1/4 cup finely chopped scallions, white and greens parts
1 serrano chile, seeded and chopped (if you're not a fan of heat, I think you could leave out)
1 tablespoon finely chopped peeled fresh ginger
3 garlic cloves, grated on a microplane or minced
finely grated zest of 1 lime
2 teaspoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon Asian fish sauce (If you don't have this on-hand, I think it's okay to leave it out)
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

dipping sauce
3 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon sriracha or other hot sauce
2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
1 teaspoon light brown sugar

1) In a large bowl, combine the pork, cilantro, scallions, chile, ginger, garlic, lime zest and juice, soy sauce, fish sauce, and salt. I find it's helpful to use my hands to gently mix it all together and have a small box of food-safe plastic gloves under my kitchen sink for this purpose. Form the mixture into 1-inch balls and arrange in a single layer (not touching) on rimmed baking sheets. At this point, the author notes you can also cover the meatballs well and refrigerate up to overnight.

2) Set the oven rack 4 inches from the broiler and heat the broiler. I used the high setting. Broil the meatballs and use tongs to turn them so they are golden all over and cooked through. The original authors notes said this took 8 to 10 minutes, but it took me more like 12.

3) While the meatballs are broiling, whisk together the dipping sauce ingredients in a separate bowl and set aside.

Coconut Rice 

This is embarrassingly easy to make (just subbing in coconut milk for water) but the payoff is big. Creamy rice is the perfect accompaniment to the salty spicy meatballs but also very good as a side to other dishes. The original recipe doesn't call for adding the toasted coconut but I love the extra crunch and sweetness.

1 13.5 ounce can coconut milk
1 cup white rice, either short or long-grain, rinsed very well
pinch of kosher salt
1/2 cup flake or shredded sweetened coconut

1) Empty the can of coconut milk into a 2-cup liquid measuring cup. If it does not read as measuring 1 7/8 cup, add enough water to equal to there.

2) In a medium sized pot with a good fitting lid, add the coconut milk, rice and salt. With the lid off, bring the mixture to a boil but then cover the pot and reduce heat to a low simmer. Cook for around 17 minutes.

3) Once the 17 minutes are up, remove the pot from the heat and place a super clean dish towel between the rim of the pot and the lid. Let the pot stand like this for 10 minutes to steam.

3) While the rice is cooking, toast coconut: place coconut in a large dry skillet over medium heat. Do not step away from the stove- it goes from zero toastiness to burnt very quickly. Stir the coconut so that it toasts evenly and remove from heat when the flakes are golden brown. Set aside to cool (and valiantly attempt not to snack on it).

4) Alongside the broiled meatballs, serve scoops of the coconut rice with a topping of toasted coconut.

If you should find yourself with extra toasted coconut, along with some shavings of dark chocolate, it makes a lovely sweet snack to top good vanilla ice cream.

Friday, October 13, 2017

a few of my favorite things - 10/13/17

As you can tell from the picture above, during unpacking this past week, I found the box with the candle holders in it. It was another 4 days until I found the box with the candles themselves, but now I am set for the waning light and the longer evenings. (I believe we are daily losing about 4 minutes of light and I can feel it.)

Here are a few of my favorite things from around the web: 

For those who regularly lead "brainstorming" type activities at work, Harvard Business Review says "For better brainstorming, tell an embarrassing story." 

Pretty sure I need this sandwich in my life.

This week I finished the book "Homegoing" by Yaa Gyasi and it is one of the best fiction books I've read in a while. It is heartbreaking and beautiful.

Speaking of book recommendations, here are Brene Brown's 6 favorite books that inspire bravery.

"6 Common Mistakes to Avoid When Roasting Vegetables" - I roast veggies probably 4 times a week. Once I learned rule 4, it really helped me. 

This Emerson Fry dress is a huge splurge but I purchased it last year and it was perfect for holiday events and I know it'll be so for many more holidays to come. If you're not familiar with Emerson Fry, it's an American made brand and they release limited edition runs of their items. Their designs manage to feel both modern and timeless.

These last few weeks have brought a lot of painful stories in the news. There have been a number of heartbreaking articles on the realities of sexual harassment that women continue to experience. It infuriates me and also makes me ill that we are still facing this. When I feel overwhelmed by it, I remind myself that we are not powerless and not without hope that we can continue to change our society for the better. A few years ago, Joanna Goddard posted this very helpful piece on teaching children about consent. One of my favorite Aha's:
  • "The feminist writer Jessica Valenti, author of Sex Object, recently told me this eye-opening tip: “It’s important to normalize a healthy reaction to the rejection of affection. So, if I ask my daughter for a kiss on the cheek and she says not right now, I smile and say, ‘Okay!’ I want her to know that the appropriate reaction to saying ‘no’ to physical affection is saying fine and moving on. Not a guilt trip, not anger, not sulking.” It was a lightbulb moment. Before, when Anton didn’t want to cuddle, I’d playfully pout and beg for kisses — now I respect his decision and move on."
We are headed to the westside (Seattle) this weekend to stock up on items in preparation for winter and to see family. My sister reports my 2 year old niece has been picking up her cell phone to "call Duke and Harriet". I am only too happy to respond!

I hope your weekend has some time with those you love. Do you have any special fall weekend plans? I'd love to hear about them.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

chocolate pumpkin seed cookies

Pumpkin, understandably, gets a lot of love this time of year. I am right up there with everyone else. At my request, my husband returned from a recent Seattle Trader Joes run with 7 cans of it for me.

I'd also like to ask us all to give some consideration to pumpkin seeds. This cookie caught my eye for just that reason. The recipe is from Bon Appetit. I like to think of it as a seasonal version of a salted chocolate chip cookie. I love the combination of a spiced brownie-like dough studded with dark chocolate with toasted green pumpkin seeds. (Please note: this recipe is talking about shelled pumpkin seeds and not the whole seed that is scraped out of the pumpkin for jack-o-lantern prep.) The finished product has a wonderful rubbly texture with crunchy and chewy bits. I love it dunked in my morning coffee.

After I made the dough, I portioned it off, froze the individual balls on a cookie sheet, and then transferred to a freezer safe ziplock bag. This way, I can have fresh baked cookies whenever the mood strikes- for example, last night, while watching Season 4 of The Great British Baking Show. (Anyone else out there watching? What do you think of this season?)

chocolate pumpkin seed cookies 

The original recipe says it makes 18 servings, but I was able to get 25- I made my dough portions a little smaller than the recommended 1/4 cup.

1½ cups raw pumpkin seeds (pepitas)
2½ cups all-purpose flour
½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 teaspoons kosher salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon smoked paprika (original recipe calls for hot smoked paprika, but I just used regular smoked)
1½ cups (packed) light brown sugar
1⅓ cups granulated sugar
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
2 large eggs
1¼ cups bittersweet chocolate chunks or chips
Flaky sea salt

1) Preheat oven to 350. On a rimmed baking sheet, spread pumpkin seeds in one layer and toast, stirring occasionally, until seeds are golden brown, about 8-10 minutes. Keep an eye on them as burned seeds/nuts are not worth including in a recipe. Remove from oven and let cool.

2) In a large bowl, whisk together flour, cocoa powder, kosher salt, baking soda, cinnamon and paprika. Set aside.

3) In the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together on medium-high speed the brown sugar, granulated sugar and butter. Beat for about 4 minutes or until the butter is pale and fluffy. (This is a step I had been rushing all my life but it is actually pretty important to the process. I now set a little timer for myself to ensure I don't skimp on the time.)

4) Add eggs, one at a time, and beat to fully incorporate before adding the next one. Then, with the mixer turned down to low, add the dry ingredients in 3 additions. Turn mixer off and, by hand, fold in chocolate and pumpkin seeds.

5) Create dough balls about 1/4 cup of dough each. On parchment-lined rimmed baking sheets, place 6 dough balls per sheet, spacing about 3 inches apart. Sprinkle with a bit of sea salt and bake, until edges are firm but centers will still be soft, about 18-20 minutes. If I am baking the dough straight from the freezer, it will need the full 20 minutes. Transfer the cookies to wire racks to cool.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

happy sad spicy roasted green beans

Last May, shortly after we decided to move from California to Washington, we were attending our SoCal church and the pastor gave a sermon about comparison. I am sorry to say that I recall almost nothing about the context or the particular anecdotes that were provided (apologies to all my pastor friends) but an aspect of it did stick with my husband and I because over post-Church brunch, we talked about it. We concluded that in moving from California to Washington we wanted to be very clear with ourselves, and in talking with others, that we did not view the move as choosing a new place because it is somehow better than our old place. We love California. The decision to go to Washington was not a push to leave California but rather a pull to do something new and different. We did not want to do the comparison thing where it's like "Oh we love Washington: all the clean air, there's no traffic, housing is so less expensive! Suck it LA." Sincerely, that has never been part of the narrative for us. We love both places and do not compare them to each other because they are very different. Another way to put it: our new love for Washington does not mean a rejection of California and the reasons why we lived there. I think it's a misstep to think that a yes to something new suddenly requires an eschewing of the former, as in "I can't believe I used to like this..." While I am very much in the honeymoon stage in my new hometown, I still carry the same love I had for where I used to live.

I think I want to share this because right now my outlook can best be described as happy sad. We purchased a new home and have been moved in for about three weeks and it is wonderful. I am so glad to be unpacked and surrounded by familiar objects and am also enjoying picking out new things for the home. (For those who have followed along with my attempts at Instagram stories, you got some awkward video of me excited for my new washing machine and TV room couch. Thanks for enduring). But unpacking has brought a new realization of the permanency of this change. It's as though seeing my California things in my Washington home deepens my understanding of "Oh, I really don't live there any more." Today I spotted a book on our shelves with a deeply faded spine. It's color stood out to me in contrast to the other books it was stacked next to. I remembered it has that faded spine because of the light it was exposed to in the guest bedroom of our California home. As I processed the memory of where it used to sit compared to where it is now,  I felt sad. That place where it used to be, where I used to be, is gone. 

I used to think that for a decision to be validated as the right one everything about it had to feel right and good and happy. As you can imagine, this has caused me no small amount of heartache over the years. Thankfully, intellectually at least, I have learned this is not the rule. I think it would have helped me all those years ago to hear more stories about the hard parts of change and transition. I know it helps me now to acknowledge them. I am okay and happy in my new place but I am also homesick for California. I can be both of those things at the same time.

It isn't the highest item on the list of things I miss about SoCal, but we did have some really great local restaurants in our neighborhood. In my opinion, the best casual dining Thai food restaurant in the US is within 2 miles of our old home (feel free to argue with me about it, but I am sticking to it). There were also places that weren't like "the best ever" but were just our places: familiar, easy, consistently good. Places where we could always count on a spot at the bar for an end of work-week margarita or short wait time for take-out. There is a Chinese food restaurant a block south from my old work that was a standby for a quick weeknight dinner. I would text my husband "Spicy green beans for dinner?" and he would text back a thumbs up affirmative. Technically, the dish was spicy green beans with chicken, but I didn't care about the chicken. When I ordered, I asked for more green beans than chicken and the staff would smile and indulge me, switching from a wide serving spoon to tongs, to better select the beans from buffet dish.

The green beans were crazy good: charred on the edges and slicked with spicy oil. Because the restaurant was so close to my work, it was also a favored lunch spot among my colleagues. And so when I say I miss these green beans, I think I am really saying I miss them too and the everyday things we shared together. 

I have not tried to replicate the exact dish (I am sure it is actually cooked in a wok), but rather give an approximation of it. For comfort, I just wanted to get a similar enough flavor profile. When I can, I love to roast in the oven because it requires less active work than minding something on the stove top. In my new Washington home, I served these beans alongside some ginger chicken and coconut rice (more later on the coconut rice.)

I am happy because these green beans are so good and sad because I miss the place where I used to eat them. 

spicy roasted green beans 

If you're not familiar with sambal oelek, it is a paste made with chilies and vinegar. The brand I've always used is from Huy Fong, the same folks who make the much beloved sriracha sauce. It packs quite a fiery punch, so I've indicated to use 1-2 teaspoons but if you love spicy foods, please feel free to add more. (Also, if you or someone you love is a big sriracha fan, this documentary film was a fun watch. It's available on Amazon Prime.)

I like to roast the green beans until they are charred in places and sort of slump in their softness but if you prefer more of a bite, please feel free to reduce the cooking time.

I think this recipe would double or triple easily but would recommend using additional baking sheets to ensure the beans roast. If the veggies are too crowded it results in steaming.

3/4 pound green beans, ends trimmed (I like to leave them whole, but you could certainly cut into segments)
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
1-2 teaspoons sambal oelek
kosher salt

1) Preheat oven to 450. On a rimmed baking sheet, toss green beans with garlic, olive oil and a generous pinch of salt.

2) Roast for about 18 minutes or until beans have charred on the edges and softened up. Then, remove baking sheet, dollop on the one to two teaspoons of sambal oelek and stir to coat the veggies. Return beans to oven for another 3 minutes and then remove. Serve the beans hot or they are also very good at room temperature. 

Thursday, October 5, 2017

caesar salad with julienned veggies and garlicky toast croutons

I have learned that one of the crux ingredients in caesar salad dressing is anchovies. Whenever I purchase a small tin of them I think of a particular scene from Friends: it's in the episode where Rachel learns that Ross slept with that girl from the copy shop and then the two of them are in Rachel and Monica's apartment. Rachel orders pizza and, just to spite Ross, asks for extra anchovies, "Can you just chop some up and put 'em right into the sauce?" (season 3, episode 16, "The One The Morning After"). I feel like in the 80s and early 90s pop culture, there were a lot of jokes about anchovies and how disgusting they are. I remember the references in movies and on TV shows but it was always lost on me; I had never eaten an anchovy before.

Now, I am up to buying a can a week and am still not sure what the joke is about. I am loving anchovies! The impetus for the sudden increase in my consumption is Julia Turshen's incredible caesar salad dressing recipe, from her book "Small Victories". It is creamy and tangy but not gloopy. It coats lettuce beautifully and I love keeping a batch of it stashed in my refrigerator for quick salad meals. I really should save myself the weekly hassle and pick-up more than one tin at a time or do they sell a small case of canned anchovies at Costco?

I do, however, have a couple of long-standing issues with the classic caesar salad. Here is my George Costanza rant (I am apparently all about the 90s TV references today):
The first issue is that the simplicity of the components (lettuce, shredded cheese, croutons, dressing) make for a thin meal. Three years ago I did a month of Whole 30, and one of the things I learned is that I get pretty bored by just a lettuce salad and that is kind of what Caesar salad is. Sure, it totally has it's place as an appetizer or side dish but, for a meal, I want a little more heft and variety to it.

My second issue is croutons- pretty standard to the caesar salad, I have struggled for my own crouton solution. Grocery store pre-made croutons seem over processed but I am pretty intimidated to make them from scratch. (I know Ina Garten does it and makes it looks so easy, but the couple of times I've tried, the results have been less than successful). I also don't like how dried out croutons are so that when I try to stab them with a fork that is also loaded up with lettuce, they just sort of crumble apart. I end up with crouton crummies but not the satisfaction of the full crunch. Or maybe I have been trying to eat them wrong all this time. Am I supposed to just eat croutons whole, by themselves?

This recipe is my attempt to address my two, very specific, pet peeves about caesar salads. For the first issue, lack of variety and bulk, I add a julienne of veggies to the standard romaine. I use cabbage, bell peppers and radish because, like romaine, they have a high watery crunch factor but also add flavor, texture, color and nutrients. For the second issue, my crouton struggle, I add a bread element that is less intimidating: I make toast. I make toast and then rub it with a garlic clove and tear it up. The result has the caramelized bread exterior that a crouton provides but is still chewy inside so it soaks up dressing a bit better and is more easily stabbed with a fork. No more crouton crummies.

If, like me, you also have similar qualms with caesar salad, I'd encourage you to give the recipe below a try. If your love of caesar salad is hang-up free, please still make Julia Turshen's Caesar dressing. It is vastly superior to any bottled dressing.

caesar salad with julienned veggies and garlicky toast croutons
(serves 2-4)

5 cups of chopped romaine lettuce (about 1 head)
2 cups shredded red cabbage (about 1/4 of a head of cabbage)
1-2 cups julienned bell pepper (1 medium yellow or red bell pepper)
1 cup julienned radishes (about 4 large radishes)
1 batch of Julia Turshen Caesar salad dressing (see recipe below)
3-4 slices of good bread for toast croutons (see recipe below)
for serving: additional freshly grated parmesan cheese and black pepper

1) Make the dressing and stick in the fridge to let the flavors mingle while you set about prepping the veggies. (see recipe below)

2) In a large salad bowl, add the chopped lettuce, cabbage, bell pepper, and radishes and give a good toss to mix together. Set aside while you make the toast croutons (see recipe below).

3) To the salad mixture, add about half of the dressing and using a large spoon, mix the veggies in the dressing until evenly coated. I always start out adding a smaller amount of dressing than I think I'll need because it's easy to add more dressing but frustrating to fix an overly dressed salad. Taste a bite of salad to determine if it meets your dressing preference. Add more dressing if desired.

4) Toss in the toast croutons, give it all a big stir, and serve immediately with additional freshly grated parmesan cheese and black pepper.

caesar salad dressing 

1 small garlic clove, minced
4 olive oil-packed anchovy fillets, drained and finely chopped
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
1/4 cup finely grated parmesan cheese
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper

1) The original cookbook instructions call for pureeing all of the above in a blender or food processor OR whisking by hand. I go for the hand whisk method: in a small bowl, whisk together the garlic, anchovy fillets, lemon juice, vinegar, olive oil, mayonnaise and parmesan cheese. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper as desired (I like the dressing with lots of pepper). Refrigerate dressing until needed.

garlicky toast croutons

The number of slices of bread to toast up depends on the number of folks eating the salad. I think a good rule is one slice per person. The recipe as written below is for 3-4 people, but feel free to adjust accordingly.

3-4 slices of good bread (I like sourdough)
6-8 teaspoons olive oil (or 2 teaspoons olive oil per slice of bread)
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and cut in half

1) Preheat oven broiler to high setting.

2) Places slices of bread in a single layer on a rimmed baking dish. Brush the upside with olive oil and set the sheet under the broiler. Keep a close eye on it and cook until bread is evenly toasted. I think this took about 2 minutes for me. Remove pan from the oven, flip the bread slices over so that now the uncooked size is facing up. Brush slices with remaining olive oil and return pan to under the broiler.

3) Once bread is toasted, remove from oven and rub the cut side of the garlic clove over the bread slices (both sides). The heat from the toast will start to "melt" the garlic clove into the bread. It's pretty cool but take care because the garlic really packs a punch and it is quite easy to over do it.

4) Tear bread into bite sized pieces and add to salad greens.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

pear, cardamom and toasted oat scones

Yesterday was awful. I am heartsick for the victims, and their loved ones, from the tragic shooting in Las Vegas. While I have not considered this space one in which to discuss the particulars of such a tragedy, it also feels wrong to not acknowledge it. I do not have the right words to share but I do know that we must do better. Personally, I am praying, reading, learning and talking about what that might look like, what I can do. In the meantime, I wish I could give us all a big hug and gather in my kitchen and feed you scones.

This recipe is a riff on the original (and my all-time favorite) scone recipe, here. The version below actually started out it's life as a peach scone but I couldn't get it quite right. The peaches were so juicy that the moisture overwhelmed the mixture. I then had the idea to add in oats, to sort of help soak it all up, but never circled back to make it while the peaches were still ripe. Peaches are almost old news around here and so, with fall temperatures, we are on to pears.

(Can I confess I am getting a little worried for myself and winter? It has been 19 years since I experienced an actual winter. The daily highs now are in the low 60s, with evening temperatures in the high 30s. I am not sure what I am going to do when it drops another 30 degrees. The other day I looked at a pair of sandals discarded by the front door and thought "well, time to put those away" which was a weird thought because in SoCal, my wardrobe was basically year-round. Sure, there would be a couple weeks of cool temps but generally the weather would bounce back to 70s, so summer shoes etc were never really put away. I am all excited to have four seasons again, but man, sh#t is getting real.)

Last week my family came to visit and I took them to one of my favorite local spots, The Daily Bread & Mercantile. Everything they sell is from scratch and their sandwiches, on homemade bread, are crazy good. In addition to our lunch order, my mom, younger sister, and Josh and I all shared a warmed up pear and cardamom scone, which we promptly devoured and then ordered a second one. I have no shame when it comes to baked goods. The combination of pear and cardamom was perfect and reminded me that I had a scone recipe to work on. The addition of oats lends a lovely nutty chewiness to the scone texture. I also love that these are not overly sweet, which I think makes them good for breakfast. If I were to serve them for an afternoon tea, I might consider a light powder sugar glaze to up their pastry factor.

The original scone recipe calls for 2/3 cup half-n-half. I rarely have half-in-half in my house and so, in a liquid measuring cup, I pour 1/2 cup of heavy cream and then add milk until it measures up to the 2/3 cup line (basically adding 1/6 cup of milk to 1/2 cup heavy cream). You are welcome to use the 2/3 cup half-in-half or if, like me, you have heavy cream in the house, thin it out with a bit of milk.

For the idea to toast the oats, I am indebted to Julia Turshen's wonderful cookbook, Small Victories. It may be a bit fiddly of a step, but adds another element of flavor and is really is not much of an effort: I think I unloaded the dishwasher while the oats toasted in the oven.

I hope you will make and share these with someone you love; that we can be comforted and be of comfort to others too.

pear, cardamom and toasted oat scones

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup quick rolled oats, toasted (directions below)
5 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon ground caradmom
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cold and large cubed
2/3 cup half-n-half OR 1/2 cup heavy cream + 1/6 cup milk = 2/3 cup (see note above)
3/4 cup cubed fresh ripe pear (about 1 medium sized pear)

1 tablespoon half-in-half or heavy cream
1 tablespoon turbinado sugar (you can easily substitute regular white sugar too)

1) Preheat oven to 350. Spread the oats in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet and bake in oven, stirring occasionally, for about 5 to 8 minutes. Remove oats from oven and increase oven temp to 425 (425 is the temp to bake the scones at).

2) In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, oats, sugar, baking powder, cardamom and salt.

3) Cut in butter with a pastry blender or two knives until mixture resembles coarse crumbs.

3) Stir in 2/3 cup half-and-half (or thinned heavy cream) until just moistened. Gently fold in pears.

4) On a lightly floured surface, knead dough gently, 5 to 10 times. Pat into a 1 inch thick round. Cut into 8 wedges. Place on a baking sheet, lined with parchment paper, 2 inches apart. You'll want to do this step rather quickly, as the pears will start to release their juices and the dough will become increasingly sticky. (ie not a good time to stop and check instagram.) In the original scone recipe, you can put in the dough in the fridge overnight. I don't think I would recommend doing that with this version as I believe the pears would break down too much.

5) Brush tops of the scone wedges with remaining tablespoon half-and-half (or heavy cream) and sprinkle with tablespoon of turbinado sugar. Bake until golden brown, 12 to 15 minutes. Let cool on a wire rack.

Friday, September 29, 2017

A few of my favorite things- 9/29/17

Happy Friday friends!

We have been in our new house for about a week and the days have flown by. It is such a relief to be in a home and to settle in. I am thrilled to see all our stuff again (a few things I have no idea why I packed them). I will share some pictures in the future. In the meantime, there are a few shots on instagram.

On Thursday morning, my husband and I confessed how exhausted we were suddenly feeling- as if all the adrenaline of the past few weeks (maybe even months?) has finally dissolved. It was then that a fun distraction presented itself: a new friend generously offered to take us on a tour of a hops farm and processing facility. The hops harvest for this year has just wrapped up. The part of Washington we live in is a major agricultural area (hay, hops, apples, cherries, etc) but my husband and I are pretty unfamiliar with farming. It is one of the things we want to learn more about and our friend offered to help educate us. Pumped up on energy drinks and canned espresso shots from the gas station, we said yes and headed to Yakima. It was so much fun! I have always shied away from beer that is hop-heavy but the experience, seeing where hops grow and learning how they are processed, may have converted me. Also, doing something totally different was the perfect antidote to our exhaustion. During grad school, I once asked a professor what I should do about feeling "stuck". She said, "Hang out with new and interesting people." It was such great advice and I am
always glad when I follow it.

Here are a few of my favorite things from the internet (these days):

Our weekend plans include watching the local art parade for "Buskers in the 'Burg".

Currently coveting this mirror for my entryway.

Harvard Business Review has an interesting take on the benefits of reading poetry.

I recently re-watched "The Way" with Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez. Made in 2010, it remains one of my favorite films. I enjoyed reading this interview, from 2011, with the father and son team.

Speaking of Martin Sheen, as I have been unpacking boxes, The West Wing Weekly podcast has been my constant companion. I know I am very late to this party, but I am loving the commentary by Joshua Malina and Hrishikesh Hirway.

Do yourself a favor and check out this clip of Prince Harry and the cutest popcorn thief.

Finally, here is Harriet enjoying the grass-filled backyard at the new house (a novelty for this California pup, who previously only had a patio).

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Rodeo recap and few of my favorite things 9/07/17

If you find yourself in Ellensburg, WA at the end the August and in need of a pair of cowboy boots, may I suggest checking out the local Goodwill? On a tip from a friend we went and found the scene pictured above. One of the employees shared with me that the year prior, they sold around 2000 pairs of boots. My husband found a great pair, but sadly the womens boots were all too snug for me and the mens boots were all too big (story of my life). (If you're looking for brand new boots, I understand the recommended place is Old Mill Country Store.)

The big Ellensburg Rodeo and Kittitas County Fair was this past labor day weekend. My sister and her family traveled out from the "westside", (Seattle- west of the cascades) and it was so much fun to experience together.

On Friday afternoon, we all went to the county fair. Walking the rows of booths, we shared a fair specialty, an "elephant ear": it is an enormous fried sheet of sweet dough, doused in cinnamon and sugar. It was quite a sight to see my husband walking towards us with both arms supporting the width of the treat. After sugar-ing up, we took our two-year old niece, Amelia, around the barns to see all the animals: horses, chickens, sheep, goats, cows, and bunnies. Local kids work hard raising and caring for the animals themselves and they proudly stand in front of the animal pens to share about the particulars. In one barn, I met a young man who showed off his sheep with nubby tan and black fur and big eyes. I asked him how much bigger the sheep would get and he matter-of-factly answered that "pretty soon she will be going to freezer camp, so she won't get much bigger than this." I did not ask for the details of "freezer camp". As someone who has lived a long while separated from the reality of what stocks my grocery store cases, it is going to take a bit of adjusting on my part to get used to the idea of living so close to food sources. I know that local farming like this is the most healthy and responsible way but it was an interesting experience to look at an eight year old and realize he had a better handle on the food chain system than myself. (As part of annual tradition, the junior raised livestock is auctioned off each year and this years sales were over $460k. Read a little about it here.)

On Saturday morning was the rodeo parade. My sister, Amelia and I were invited to watch with some new friends. Their family gets up early to secure seats right downtown and generously invited us to join them. The parade was wonderful- entries were from all over and the parade itself last for about an hour and a half. From floats, candy was thrown to onlookers but some parade entries were more creative: one passed out bottles of water and another, shiny large Washington apples. The pacific northwest potato chip company, Tim's, had a handful of employees handing out snack sized bags. One of my favorite moments was seeing the parade participants from Yakama Nation, dancing in their gorgeous beaded regalia. From Tacoma, WA there was also a band of bag pipers, whose music always makes my sister and I cry. There were, naturally, lots of horses in the parade, and although I know nothing about them, even I could tell these were some extraordinary animals- coats gleaming, heads held high, and manes and tails tossing as they marched down the street to cheers and claps.

In the afternoon, my sister and I walked to the Rodeo. A friend generously gifted us tickets and passes to the Gold Buckle Clubhouse and I am afraid we are now forever spoiled by the experience of hanging out on the shaded clubhouse porch, drinking gin and tonics and watching the rodeo events. The Ellensburg Rodeo is considered one of the top 10 in the country and draws world-ranked participants. I think it is a pretty great to be introduced to a sport by such accomplished athletes. In particular, I was floored by the speed of the barrel racing.

In the evening, we all ate chicken caesar salads in our tiny rental house (I cooked chicken breasts in the crockpot until shredded and whipped up Julia Turshen's dressing. It really is the best) and then it was our husbands turn to head to the rodeo to watch the bull-riding competition. Elizabeth, Amelia and I picked up bubbles and ice cream bars at the grocery store and, in the waning light, played at the park by the Yakima River. Amelia did not want her ice cream bar, so I got to eat two.

It was such a fun weekend and we've already determined to make it a family tradition. For those of us familiar the crowds of Disneyland or the largesse of an LA County Fair, the local Rodeo and Fair are just about the right size: large enough to draw talented participants and special exhibits, but small enough to feel hometown and not commercialized. I am, admittedly, in my honeymoon phase of living in a new place, but still, it felt pretty special.

In other goings on, we are experiencing a terrible wildfire just to the northeast of us. The air quality is so poor that some local schools are delaying their start and we've stayed indoors most of this week. The pups are getting a little stir crazy but our inconvenience is nothing compared to folks whose property is threatened and those tasked with fighting the fire. Hoping all is resolved soon.

From around the web, here are a few of my favorite things:

For all the fuss about cooking from scratch, here is a list of things Bon Appetit says they will not make homemade. Do you agree? (I would never attempt homemade tater tots)

A friend survived a recent plane crash in Alaskan waters. Along with the pilot, he and three other passengers swam to shore and were later rescued. Here and here are interviews recounting the ordeal. This line gives me chills: "The feeling of stepping, or just kind of sliding out of the plane into bottomless water, it was a feeling I won't forget."

This takes some serious dedication and talent to accomplish.

At night, if I can't seem to turn my brain off, I love to watch these clips (#7 may be my favorite).

Finally, for those of us who enjoy a well-placed cuss word, "The Social Benefits of Swearing."

Happy Thursday Friends!

Friday, September 1, 2017

halibut salad melt

Please do not imagine that dinner time at my house always finds us enjoying impeccable meals. I can make some real stinkers. Almost more frustrating than a dinner that completely bombs is one that is just like okay. If dinner is a full acknowledged disaster, we can move on and enjoy a bowl of frosted flakes. But when dinner is just okay, we trudge through it. I found myself in such a situation recently when I tried a new recipe for Provençal halibut. It was pan fried halibut steaks with a sauce of tomatoes, Kalamata olives, capers, a splash of balsamic vinegar, and basil. Except I forgot to add the basil. But I don’t think that’s what doomed the dish. I wanted to try something different with halibut and landed on this and it did turn out to be different, we just didn’t like it that much. I served it with parmesan roasted cauliflower, which I liked better than anything else on my plate.

The next day, I was going to have the leftover halibut with sauce for lunch and realized I was really not excited about it. Also, most of the time, fish is terrible reheated. I once worked in a building with a sign in the breakroom stating that microwaving fish was not allowed. No matter how fresh the fish, the smell of it reheating is pretty unappetizing. So, here I was, not looking forward to lunch and I decided to cut my losses. Rather than doctor up the Provençal sauce further, I pulled the halibut steaks from it, made a little halibut salad, layered it on thick slices of sourdough bread, and broiled it with a lid of cheddar and parmesan cheese. It was the opposite of okay. It was like, brilliantly good.

I am a little tempted to call this a tartine. I basically live to call an open-faced sandwich tartine. (I never mind a little pretension.) Tartine is the French word for an open-faced sandwich, but, while this includes gorgeous halibut, it’s roots are more diner. I think melt sandwiches are the hero of leftovers. This sandwich could easily be made with leftover salmon, canned tuna or grilled chicken. I think the success of a melt hinges on two items: some type of pickle element and a good amount of toasted cheese. Without a vinegary bite, it is almost too luxurious- all that gorgeous mayonnaise and cheese is best enjoyed with a little relief for the palate, be it from relish, pickle or caper. I happen to really love capers with halibut but feel free to substitute what you enjoy best. As for cheese, I use whatever is in the fridge. The only requirement being it needs to melt well and also there should be enough of it. This is not time to skimp.

Which brings me to a note about the bread. One of the things I was just sure I was going to have to give up when moving to small town, was artisan bread. My Trader Joes in SoCal spoiled me and I was used to boules and long baguettes. Post-move, I thought it would be Orowheat and wonder bread from here on out and that good bread was something I would need to learn to make. I made my peace with that. Dang, was I wrong. About a 5 minute walk from our rental house is Vinman's Bakery and the folks there make the most gorgeous bread. They have their classics (multi-grain, sourdough, etc) and then everyday there are additional bread specials with names like German Farm Bread and Orange Raisin Rye (both excellent). I am slowly making my way through it all. My routine is the dogs and I walk Josh to work and then once or twice a week we stop back at the bakery. I tether the dogs outside and step in to a space filled with the smells of yeast and flour and pastry filled with cream and rhubarb compote (heaven). When you buy a loaf, the helpful bakery staff offer to slice it up on their fancy slicing machine. The other day when I picked out my selection, the gentleman behind the counter apologized and said the bread was too warm for them to pre-slice for me. I grinned like an idiot at the thought of someone apologizing for warm bread. The puppies and I returned home to a second breakfast of fresh bread with butter.

Halibut salad melts

Makes two large open-faced sandwiches

Halibut salad:
2 cups cooked halibut, broken into bite sized pieces
¼ cup good mayonnaise
¼ cup chopped celery (about 2 small ribs)
scant ¼ cup chopped scallions (about 1 scallion)
1 ½ tablespoons drained capers
juice of half a lemon
salt and pepper

to assemble:
2 large slices of thick bread, lightly toasted
½ cup grated sharp cheddar cheese
¼ cup grated parmesan cheese
1 medium tomato

1) Mix together the halibut salad. To avoid smashing the fish too much, gently toss all the ingredients together with a fork.

2) Move an oven rack to the highest placement and turn the oven broiler to high. 

3) On a rimmed cookie sheet place the two large slices of toasted bread (I toast mine in the broiler, but you're welcome to use a toaster. The key is to just lightly toast it, as the bread will get another dose of heat from the broiler). Top bread with generous scoops of the halibut salad and then distribute the cheese.

4) Place under broiler and broil until cheese melts and starts to bubble. Keep an eye on it- it only takes moments under the broiler to go from toasty perfection to inedible charcoal.

5) Remove from heat and let stand momentarily. Serve topped with slices of tomato. Sprouts are also good.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Mary Oliver Monday: "The Sunflowers"

Come with me
into the field of sunflowers.
Their faces are burnished disks,
their dry spines

creak like ship masts,
their green leaves,
so heavy and many,
fill all day with the sticky

sugars of the sun.
Come with me
to visit the sunflowers,
they are shy

but want to be friends;
they have wonderful stories
of when they were young -
the important weather,

the wandering crows.
Don't be afraid
to ask them questions!
Their bright faces,

which follow the sun,
will listen, and all
those rows of seeds -
each one a new life! -

hope for a deeper acquaintance;
each of them, though it stands
in a crowd of many,
like a separate universe,

is lonely, the long work
of turning their lives
into a celebration
is not easy. Come

and let us talk with those modest faces,
the simple garments of leaves,
the coarse roots in the earth
so uprightly burning.

- Mary Oliver
from the Book "Dream Work"

In late August, it feels like every yard in the neighborhood is growing sunflowers. They loll their friendly faces over tall fences and stretch upward on impossibly thin stalks. I was thinking about them and then stumbled over this poem by Mary Oliver and wanted to share it with you all. The picture above was taken during this morning's walk and the yellow and orange of the sunflowers and marigolds seemed to pulse in the gray light. I salute this homeowner for such a cheery front yard.

The town is buzzing with preparation for the upcoming Ellensburg Rodeo. I am unfamiliar with the sport, but our town has been hosting since 1923 and it is now considered one of the top 10 Rodeo's in the US. The participants are world-class and I'm looking forward to taking it all in (and hopefully some good fair food too!)

Best wishes to all for the week ahead.

Friday, August 25, 2017

sautéed corn with caramelized onions and smoked paprika

I know that years from now, when I think back to this summer, two things will come to mind: a ridiculous pop song about Paris and the local fresh sweet corn.

One of the interesting things about change is the new and inconsistent rhythm it introduces- there are days jammed with stress (the day the movers arrived at our California home to pack up the moving truck was a ballet of chaos) contrasted by stretches of lull and inactivity.

A good example of the lull was the drive from California to Washington. Pretty much a straight shot in driving and we did not stop much a long the way. To keep us entertained, I came up with a last minute game: we went to Target and stood in front of their small display of CDs. (I know, I know, buying CDs in a store? It felt very 1995.) The game was we each got to pick one CD and, during the drive, we had to listen it in it's entirety- no skipping songs we didn't like, no complaining. You can employ varies strategies in this game: you can either pick a CD you both will love or pick a CD your road trip partner will hate, but they can turn right back around and dish the same out to you. I was super tempted to torture my husband with The Best Hits of Nickleback but decided it wasn't worth it. We ended up with U2 Joshua Tree live at Madison Square Garden (my pick) and NOW vol. 62 (my husbands pic). He picked the NOW CD partially to beat me at my own game and partially because pop music is perfect for keeping us awake on long stretches of road.

For the unfamiliar, the NOW albums are comprised of the latest pop hits. Reading through the CD case details (it was a long drive) I learned they are produced something like 3x year. I think the last time I bought one of them, they were at volume 3 or 4, which yes, makes me feel ancient.

Listening to it was fun/diverting because, for most of the CD, we were unfamiliar with the songs or artists. It was fun to approach it without assumptions or prior knowledge. On the second play through, we listened only to the songs we liked best. Lady Gaga (of course we're familiar with her music) is insanely talented and makes it sound easy but just try singing along to "A Million Reasons", that is some serious work. There was also some nonsense song where everything rhymes with "Paris" that is fun- as in "We were living in Paris...something something something...terrace" Cracks us up each time.

This little game is made even more hilarious by the fact that now we are recognizing these songs on the radio or when we run errands in businesses. Forever, these songs will haunt us, remind us of this summer and make us laugh.

The other thing that will always remind me of this summer is cooking, for the first time, with all the beautiful Washington produce. I was not prepared for how much I would be influenced by the seasonality of ingredients, simply by being so close to where they are grown. The first few weeks I was here, it was all about blueberries and cherries. Then apricots made an appearance. Now it's all about corn and peaches. The corn at my grocery store is called bicolor, includes both yellow and while kernels and is 50c an ear. My favorite way to eat fresh corn is grilled and with basil butter. Sadly, we do not have a grill yet and so I wanted a preparation that would pull in some of those smokey elements. Enter caramelized onions and smoked paprika. I served this corn as part of a salad with fresh greens, bbq shredded chicken, homemade julienned pickled vegetables (absolutely worth the effort- recipe here) and a dollop of sour cream. On my first grocery trip I bought four ears and it was so good I went back the next day and bought eight more. The next batch of corn I sautéed up as well but this time included some cubes of fresh zucchini and layered it on homemade pizza dough, brushed with garlic olive oil, along with mozzarella and parmesan cheese.  The sweet bright corn was perfect with the creamy salty cheese and chewy garlic scented dough.

A friend messaged me the other day to ask "Are you spending time in the kitchen? I know that often centers you." She is right. When my world gets topsy turvy, the kitchen becomes my hub. As Nora Ephron famously wrote:

  • "What I love about cooking is that after a hard day, there is something comforting about the fact that if you melt butter and add flour and then hot stock, it will get thick! It’s a sure thing! It’s sure thing in a world where nothing is sure..."

I love the "sureness" of cooking but I also love that when I do it, I am nurturing both myself and my husband. We all have to eat and our particular rhythm says we need to have three meals a day and it is such a relief to know that no matter the chaos, I can create the space to say I will pause and do this with care and thought. I love the actual process as much as I love the end product. I love the thousand decisions along the way. An example from last nights dinner: before adding cilantro to the salad, should I pluck the tender leaves off the stem and then rough chop? or should I fine chop the whole bundle, stems and all, into a kind of heady lemony mulch? I don't even really mind doing the dishes because that means portioning up leftovers as some kind of treasure to help solve tomorrow's challenges (is there anything better than leftover pie for breakfast?) Also, because of that beautiful moment at the end where the kitchen counter is clear and all is put back in it's right spot and the knowledge that tomorrow (or in a few hours) I can walk back and create all over again.

In her book, Small Victories, Julia Turshen writes that we all just need to admit that caramelizing onions takes much longer than we think it does. (At least I think it was her that said this, all my books remain packed up in the 2nd bedroom of my rental house, so it's going to be a while until I can verify). I couldn't agree more.  Recipes that say "caramelize onions for 10 minutes" are just kidding themselves. I genuinely think 30 minutes is needed to properly get the job done. While that may seem like a long-time, anything less is just missing out on that deep flavor. The smokey sweetness of the onions, helped along by the paprika, is darn near perfect with the crisp corn. The good news is I think a big batch of caramelized onions could be made in advance, say on a Sunday afternoon, and stashed in the fridge for quicker weeknight meal prep.

sautéed corn with caramelized onions and smoked paprika

1 large yellow onion
1- 2 tablespoon olive oil
4 ears of fresh corn, kernels cut from the cob (about 3 cups)
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/2 tablespoon butter
kosher salt

1) Put a good glug of olive (1-2 tablespoons) in a large saute pan and heat over medium high.

2) Add onion and cook for a couple of minutes, stirring occasionally, until onions are translucent.

3) Add a good pinch of salt and the smoked paprika. Reduce heat to low and cook until onions are caramelized- deepen in color and are meltingly soft. You want the heat low enough that the onions do not burn but not so low that they don't cook. I find this step usually takes me about 30 minutes. I use the time to tidy up the kitchen and every so often give the onions a little stir.

4) Scoop the onions out of the pan, but leave all the good stickiness on the bottom of the pan. Raise heat to medium high and add 1/2 tablespoon of butter, along with the corn.

5) Saute the corn for 2-3 minutes until crisp tender (seriously, this takes almost no time) and stir back in the reserved caramelized onions. Serve warm or room temperature.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

blueberry and blackberry Eton mess with whipped mascarpone

Before I moved to Washington, in our early excited phone calls, my sister said one of the things we could look forward to is blueberry picking together in the summer on her side of the cascades, and then in the fall, apple picking on my side of the mountains. Through the hard moments of this move, packing boxes and tearful goodbyes, I have stored up this snapshot of future life - life lived closer with my big sister - to help buoy my spirits.

There was a part of me that worried it wouldn't happen: these fruit picking family outings. Like people who live in Southern California but rarely make it to the beach (guilty as charged), it is easy to have expectations and dreams of the person we could be if we changed our life, if we moved somewhere else. Part of the early struggles of a new life are the comparison of the reality with the picture in my head. I will say there have been some hard days, some disappointments. But in this one area, I underestimated my sister: just three weeks in to my new residency, I found myself with her at a blueberry farm.

A couple of weeks ago I spent 5 days staying in Seattle with my sister and her family. My husband had work commitments out in the area and so we all packed up and drove out on Wednesday morning. When I pulled the suitcases out the day before, I noticed Duke and Harriet looked a little nervous. They have adjusted so well to all the changes, but at this point, I wonder if they think we don't have a home. They have stayed in such a hodgepodge of places over the last few weeks: a packed up California house, hotel rooms, an empty rental house and then the same rental house packed with California boxes, etc. But one of the benefits of crate trained dogs is that as long as their crates are with them, they have a bit of security. When we move the crates to carry them outside to put in the car, they tried to jump in them to assert that where the crates go, they do too.

On Thursday morning, three of us: myself, Elizabeth and Amelia, drove to Mountainview Blueberry Farm in Snohomish. We all wore our sun hats, as the weather was unusually hot for the Seattle area- 90+. The staff at the farm set us up with buckets and pails with strings tied on and directed us towards the best areas for picking.

My previous experience with blueberry picking has all been in the wild of Southeast Alaska: directions to berry patches include notes like "look for the tallest pine tree on the right side of the road, just after the 3rd curve, and walk straight down hill".  Wild blueberries themselves are much smaller and their flavor concentrated, but picking them is the focused work of plucking the berries one by one from the bush. At the blueberry farm, I encountered blueberries that grow in clusters so that I could run my hand down a branch and the ripe berries popped off their stems, plunking directly into my bucket. We figured we had about an hour for picking, so we worked furiously. Amelia picked too but also ate and also dumped her bucket out. At one point, my sister accidentally spilled blueberries out of her own bucket and cried out "oh no!" Amelia tottered over and said, "It's okay momma, can I give you a hug?" She is such a sweetheart.

At the farm, there were other groups picking alongside us in the rows. There was just enough distance and privacy from the bushes that people felt free to converse amongst themselves but, in reality, all of us could easily hear one another. I loved catching snippets of conversation from a group of teenagers that someone had hauled along with them. They weren't particularly interested in berry picking but rather recounting the past weeks activities: who had been where and at which party etc. Their conversation brought such a wave of nostalgia from teenage summers- where it felt like there was so much possibility if only one could be in the right place at the right time. A row over from me, I listened as two young moms, babies in backpacks, chatted about finds at the recent Nordstrom sale and lamented an upcoming family reunion ("My own mother won't help me with the kids at all!").

After an hour, we decided to call it. The weight of carrying my bucket was causing an ache in my shoulders, so I was secretly hopeful about the amount of picking I accomplished. Under the pop-up canopies at the front of the farm entrance, we watched as our berries were poured into cardboard flats for weighing. We were just shy of 12 lbs! Easily the most blueberries my sister and I have ever picked in one setting. Here is a snapshot of my berry bucket with my fingers stained from picking.

We took our berry flats home- carefully placed in the backseat of the car. Once there, while Amelia napped, we picked over the berries to remove stems, leaves, snails and whatever else had been snagged along the way. The berries then spent a good soak in cold water- distributed amongst large bowls that covered two thirds of my sisters kitchen counters. It was satisfying work. After they were cleaned up, we spread 3/4 of the berry haul in single layers on large cookie sheets and placed them in the freezer. We left the remaining 1/4 of berries available for snacking from the fridge.

Late that evening my husband joined us back at my sisters house and he and my brother in law walked to a nearby brewery for a nightcap. They returned from the walk with a bounty of foraged wild blackberries. The polished purple beads of the blackberries along with the blueberries inspired the dessert for our following evening out. My sister (such a great planner!) snagged 4 tickets for us all to the Allen Stone concert at Chateau Ste Michelle, a winery just north of Seattle that hosts outdoor summer concerts. Amelia (and Duke and Harriet) stayed home with a sitter and my sister and I packed an easy picnic supper and two bottles of wine.

Our dinner included a gorgeous tomato, basil and mozzarella salad assembled by my sister with yellow heirloom tomatoes. My contribution was dessert- a riff on my favorite Eton mess. If you're not familiar with the dessert, it is a jumbled together mix of berries, whipped cream, and broken meringues. I like to let guests assemble their own, so they can portion out more or less of each of the components as they desire. It can all be made in advance, and as long as elements stay cool, it travels quite nicely. In my California life, I brought this treat into work several times. The magic of this dish is the alchemy of crisp sharply sweet meringue with edges melted by tart soft berries, all held together by a cloud of cream. Trader Joe's sells a tub of vanilla meringues which are just perfect for the job. While Eton mess is traditionally made with strawberries, I feel no loyalty and regularly substitute whatever berry I like. I like to cook the berries down slightly to be sure there is enough of a sauce to soften up the meringues. I include a smidge of cinnamon with the sauce because my mom always includes it in her blueberry cobbler. I like the pairing- I feel like the cinnamon brings out a certain muskiness in the blueberries. You are welcome to omit, but I'd highly encourage giving it a try.

While also untraditional, the addition of the mascarpone to the whipped cream provides a bit of tang and results in a mixture that flirts with a sort of deconstructed cheesecake. I add vanilla extract, but I also think a little citrus zest folded in at the end could be wonderful. (Mascarpone is a soft Italian cheese and, like cream cheese, can be used in both sweet and savory preparations. Here is one of my favorite ways to enjoy it.)

The Chateau Ste Michelle concert venue was charming- like a smaller, more casual version of Hollywood Bowl. Instead of bleachers and benches, it is a large open field and people bring blankets or low camping chairs. Allen Stone put on a wonderful show. He is crazy talented and has a great goofy sense of humor. As the sun set, the air cooled enough to remind me I was in Washington, and I thought about how I was with people I love, eating food we had picked and made together. It was a lucky moment where the person I hoped to be met the person I am.

Please note: the berry sauce recipe below will make extra which is excellent to stash in the fridge for serving on pancakes or even muddled into cocktails (!)

blueberry and blackberry Eton mess with whipped mascarpone

berry sauce:
4 cups fresh blueberries
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2-3 tablespoons lemon juice
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 cup water
2 cups fresh blackberries

whipped mascarpone:
8 oz. container of mascarpone
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4-5 tablespoons granulated sugar

to assemble:
7.75 oz package of vanilla meringues (I'd recommend enough for 3-4 meringues per person)

for sauce
1) In a medium sized heavy bottomed sauce pan, stir together all the ingredients, except the blackberries. Reserve those for the end.

2) Heat over medium high heat until sauce starts to bubble (berries will burst and release juices), then lower the temperature and cook until it thickens up slightly. As I shared above, I keep this sauce on the loose side and don't let it get too jammy or thick, but it is entirely up to your preference.

3) Remove sauce from heat and set aside to cool. Once the temperature has reduced, stir in the blackberries. This sauce can be made in advance and kept in the fridge.

for whipped mascarpone 
1) In a mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, add the mascarpone and stir for a few seconds on medium speed, just to smooth things out.

2) Add the vanilla and sugar and stir again to incorporate.

3) Add in about a third of the heavy cream and start the speed out slow so that it is incorporating (and not splattering cream everywhere), then increase speed to start to whip the cream and build the volume. Do not whip for so long that you've actually made the whipped cream, stop while it is still soft and add the second third of the heavy cream. Follow the same steps: start out with slow speed so that the heavy liquid is smoothly mixed in and then increase speed to just start to see an increase in volume. At this point, stop the mixer and check for sweetness. If more sugar is needed, add here- it will give it time to dissolve. Add the remaining third of the heavy cream, once incorporated, increase the speed until the mixture is whipping and thickens up like whipped cream. Be sure to watch carefully as this happens pretty quickly and want to avoid making butter. Chill the cream mixture until ready to serve.

to assemble
1) Place the meringues in a large ziplock baggie and on a heavy surface, smash down with your fist to break into large pieces- about quarter or half-dollar size (any smaller than that and they just disappear in the mixture).

2) Set out the berry sauce, whipped mascarpone, and crushed meringues. Provide guests with small bowls to assemble their own Eton mess. Enjoy!

Friday, July 28, 2017

A few of my favorite things - 7/28/17

These days are all about the temporary: living out of boxes, in a (hopefully) short-term rental house. While there is so much that feels open-ended, like my sentences are all end with an ellipsis, I am finding it helpful to establish, where I can, consistency and a sense of normalcy. Even the mundane is welcome at this point. My husband and I have been getting up around 5:30am to walk/jog. The picture above was taken the first morning we visited Irene Rinehart park.

As a way of establishing another familiar process, I thought I would also start to regularly share a few of my current favorite things:

Grantchester season 3 just wrapped up and I am not entirely sure what to think of the direction the characters have taken. Is anyone else out there watching?

I think listening to this song transforms any situation. I used to listen to it on the morning train into LA and look at the houses flashing by the trains path and think of all the people waking up to start their days. After our recent move, the first morning we jogged down by the Yakima river, both my husband and I put in ear buds and played this song. It was our soundtrack and accompanied only by the crunch of the gravel path and whistles of birds. Pretty magical.

This article in the LA Times made me smile (and naturally, it is about dachshunds).

For those who may wonder: how are Duke and Harriet adjusting? Here is Harriet soaking up the central Washington sunlight. She celebrated her 6th birthday this week and I cried: out of gratitude for the love and joy that she has brought to our lives and out of exhaustion for this particular season we are in.
Our rental house has a small backyard, but it is much larger than the CA patio they previously had, so the pups are loving it. I like how Harriet appears to be "smizing".

Happy Friday friends!

Monday, July 24, 2017

Early days in a new place and a simple salmon recipe

Hello from a new place! We arrived in central Washington late afternoon on Sunday 7/16. We drove in on interstate 82 and dropped over the Umtanum and Manastash ridges from Yakima, and as our new hometown was coming into view, I pressed play on the song "Home" by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. It felt right.

However, I am proving out the wisdom that just because a decision is right, doesn't mean it will be easy. These first few days have been overwhelming. My sincere apologies to all my friends who have done big moves: I know I was not as understanding as was warranted or needed. There are so many things to learn and adjust to: my initial trip to the grocery store took 90 minutes, most of it trying to find where the heck everything was located.

The moving company arrived Tuesday with all our items. It feels to good to have both us, the dogs and our belongings in the same spot. Escrow closed the same day on our home in SoCal. So, in all capacities, I have moved- this is where I live now. Sometimes my brain can't quite catch up with it. The first night sleeping in our new home I rolled onto my right side expecting to see faint light through our bedroom sliding glass doors. Instead I found a solid wall and it took a few minutes to realize where I was and in which state.

While my little world is topsy-turvy, there are graces along the way. My sister calls them "text messages from God", which I think is good description: not earth-shattering, stone tablet-creating communications, but moments and interactions that help me feel loved and connected.

I have a perfect example: while the movers were unloading the semi-truck full of our boxes (and I was fretting terribly: has everything arrived? is anything damaged? what room should I put this and this and this in? will it all fit into our dollhouse sized rental house? ) I noticed a girl of about 7 years old watching the activity from a safe vantage point on the sidewalk. She stepped off her scooter but was still wearing her hot pink helmet, elbow and knee pads. She watched for about 15 minutes and I waved at her and she waved back. About 30 minutes later she returned with her older sister and marched right up to me with a jar of lemonade and handwritten card welcoming us to the neighborhood. It was the kindest gesture and we chatted for a few minutes. The girls told me which house was there's and that they have a Corgi who will always bark when we walk by.

It was so helpful to me, to feel welcomed. Daily there are gains in this direction and I use them to buoy me up. I am just terrible at navigating change and hold on to all the encouragement I can.

And of course, I am still me, even in a new place, which means I look to my kitchen as a place of centering. On Wednesday, it was one of the first rooms I tackled to unpack boxes and organize. By Thursday, the weather turned cool. Well, cool for me: 75 with a strong wind. I wore a sweater to the grocery store and was kindly questioned by the cashier, "How can you possibly wear a sweater in this heat?" She accepted my explanation that I am from SoCal and the grocery bagger tried to lessen the awkwardness of the interaction by saying, "Well, it is a very nice sweater." I purchased a gorgeous deep coral wild sockeye salmon and, owing to the cold weather and all, made a pot of salmon chowder with one of the fillets. It was cozy and delicious and so perfectly comforting. I do not yet have the chowder recipe developed to share with you all, but it is on my list of things I'd like to write about.

In the meantime, I will share what I did with the second fillet: an easy baked salmon recipe. As I grew up regularly having this dish, it is pure comfort food to me. Good fish, mayonnaise and salt and pepper is all that is necessary. The thin coating seals in the moisture of the fish and adds a creamy saltiness. I purchased a whole salmon, so I did this with a full fillet but I think the process could easily be applied to smaller portions.

simple baked salmon

1 salmon fillet, skin on (approx 2- 2 1/2 pounds)
2-3 tablespoons good mayonnaise
salt and pepper

1) Preheat oven to 350. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.

2) Place the salmon on the baking sheet, skin side down. Pat the fish dry with paper towels and season with salt and pepper. Using a butter knife spread a thin even layer of mayonnaise over the salmon. As far as the thickness of the layer, it should be opaque, but still thin, like 1/16th of an inch or less.

3) Bake fish for approximately 20 minutes, until it flakes easily with a fork. The cooking time will vary depending on the thickness of your piece of fish. To ensure I did not overbake, after 10 minutes, I started checking every 3 minutes.

4) Enjoy with a spritz of lemon. Leftovers are wonderful when made into salmon salad sandwiches.