Author Archives: Lisa

Wednesday Soup

Curing onions. July 2011, Virginia.

On the long list of watershed decisions in my life, that moment in the summer of 2015 when I hit “send” on the invitation to our first weekly potluck has got to be near the top. Yes, I lost my religion and found my people when I studied abroad twenty years ago. Yes, the ground beneath my feet took on a whole new kind of gravity when I said a resounding “I do!” underneath a sprawling ash tree on a clear May afternoon in front of two hundred of our favorite people. Yes, I was born again, more ferocious and exhausted and present than I had any clue was possible, when I pushed two babies out of my womb and into this terrible beautiful world.

Maybe clicking “send” didn’t boom with the same obvious thunder, but I maintain it was just as big.

I’ve thought for a long time about writing a meaty post about our potlucks: why we invite people into our messy home every week, what kind of community has emerged, even tiny details about forks or bedtimes or dishwashing. But one of the truest things about our Wednesday nights, I hope, is they are safe. You come with your salad in one hand and your weariness in another, and when you get here you put it all on the table. Sometimes you talk. Sometimes you reach for the bread quietly. Sometimes you can’t hear anything for the din of children careening from couch to coffee table. But you know these gatherings aren’t fodder for likes or traffic or ad dollars; you come as you are, to feed and to be fed.

And so I’m not sure I can in good conscience write a detailed potluck manifesto. What I can tell you is to make some soup.

When I first envisioned a standing weekly dinner, I thought I’d make soup and bread every week and we’d ask our guests to bring sides or desserts or drinks. Soup is easy, and comforting, and convivial: everything I wanted these meals to be. But for the first five or six months, we gathered on the beach at the end of our block, and we determined immediately that sandy soup is not delicious. So we switched to picnic fare, but as the weather turned and we moved indoors, out came the Dutch oven and the bone broth. To this day, the table looks different every week, but there is almost always a pot, or two, of soup.

This week I hopped out of the shower less than an hour before our friends were due with no idea what I’d make – par for the course, if I’m being honest! I dug through my soup recipes and remembered one we’d adapted from Simply in Season several years ago for our market customers and CSA members. We have onions and potatoes and kale, I thought, so let’s do this! Our original version didn’t call for any beans, but we had some chickpeas too, and that sounded even more like a meal.

The pictures in this post come from those same Virginia farm years. As we stand here at what is probably another of those watersheds, I find enormous comfort in remembering that our story as a family winds back through lots of years, across fecund fields and crowded crosswalks and many shared tables. We’re going to be fine.

Shannon/Claire/autumn vegFall roots and greens. October 2009, Virginia. 

Hearty Potato Soup with Kale and Chickpeas

When I revisited this recipe this week, it seemed odd to divide the broth, but I think there’s something to it: some kind of textural alchemy happens when you partially purée the vegetables in only half the broth, and the soup gets way more interesting than you’d expect from such straightforward ingredients.

Use the broth you love best here; water works but a rich chicken bone broth or a deeply flavorful vegetable broth (I like Better Than Bouillon very much) is way better.

1 tablespoon butter or olive oil
1 large onion, chopped, or 1 leek, roots and toughest greens removed, thinly sliced
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2-2 lbs potatoes, diced
6 cups chicken or vegetable broth, or water in a pinch, divided
1/2-3/4 lb kale, chopped
1 15-oz can chickepas, drained, or 1 1/2-2 cups cooked chickpeas
salt and pepper to taste
Parmesan (optional)

In a large pot, melt the butter or warm the olive oil over medium heat.  Add the onions and sauté until they begin to soften, and then add the garlic and sauté for another minute.  Add the potatoes and enough broth or water to cover by an inch or so – probably about half the broth.  Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer and cook until the potatoes are soft.

Using an immersion blender, carefully blend the soup until it thickens but some chunks of potato remain – or, ladle out about half the vegetables and set aside, purée the rest of the vegetables and the cooking liquid in a blender or food processor, and then return everything to the pot. Add the kale, the drained chickpeas, and the remaining broth. Return to a boil, reduce to a summer, and cook until the kale is soft.  Add salt and pepper to taste. Grate or shave some Parmesan on top and slurp it up!

Harvesting curly kale. September 2010, Virginia.

Like that

This afternoon I walked, alone. My usual course is straight back from the house, around the barn and away from the road, through the hedgerow of milkweed and phragmites and multiflora rose and goldenrod and sumac, and then either a hard right northwest to our neighbor’s pond and woods, or a short jog right before setting west again toward the salt marsh at the very back, a half mile from the house. But today I stayed close. I felt chipper, unburdened, crouching to examine praying mantis egg sacs and stepping carefully around a cracked pane of glass blown from a barn window by this wind that follows us from farm to farm.

And then I looked at the long watermelon beds, a few dozen desiccated fruits in slow decay, and was ambushed by a grief so acute and unexpected I almost doubled over.

Things are changing, and that’s something I need to write about. Here, I hope.

I walked. I stopped again at the fence between our yard and the sweet potato beds, my jaw tight. I looked down at a feather. And then, whoosh, whisper, whoosh. I couldn’t find a Carolina wren in the bare lilac bush, nor a squirrel in the dense underbrush where our chickens used to take cover from hawks. I looked up, and just in time: a large black bird, not ten feet up and passing directly over my head. Whoosh, whoosh, and then it coasted low through the yard before disappearing over the old pecan tree out front.

And like that: the grief eased.

I walked back to the barn again and then around it, searching the sky, wondering about the bird. Too small to be a black vulture, I thought, but was it too big to be a crow? A raven? I saw it again, soaring above the south tree line. Further back, more of the black birds screeched and dove at a black vulture perched high on a leafless poplar, finally driving it off.

It was a lonesome sort of winter scene, all blacks and greys and browns, plaintive caws, naked trees, last year’s vegetables gone and their beds asleep under a cover crop of wheat and red clover, my fingers stiff with cold. How comforting, then, to feel so solidly un-alone.

I keep the company of these birds, and of my questions about who they are and why they’re here now, and of the people who will help me to figure it all out. I am looking up, and looking it up, and writing it down. It seems a good way forward.

A hard day on a hard week (Monday thanks)

pear chocolate nutmeg muffin

It’s been a big week. Count me among the devastated. But the list of things bringing me quiet solace right now feels a mile long: the perfume of the thorny olive blossoms; lingering woodsmoke in my hair and my clothes; these aching blue skies; cold nights under goose down; my first efforts at fermenting milk kefir; stolen minutes (sometimes seconds) with my book; a fridge cleanout; this trusty soup and a half dozen friends around my table; the smell of the woods as the leaf mulch thickens and begins to decay; my fierce toddler and my tender 7-year old and our Twister mat spread wide in front of the fireplace; our inherited barn cat, half feral in the year we’ve been here, now ready for ear scratches; pulling another bag of July blueberries from the freezer for pancakes; naps. Not my own, alas. But my hilarious, determined, curious, headstrong daughter…maaaaan, the girl is non-stop. (I say it like Leslie Odom Jr. so I don’t forget to laugh!)

There was an afternoon last week when we stopped at the bay, just for a minute, just to see it was still there, just to remember to breathe. I parked at the end of the road and kept both hands on the wheel. I remember the tide was quite high. Both kids begged to get out and play, and I want to be the mom who forgets her to-do list and says yes to that, and I think I am that mom really, but this was a hard day on a hard week and I was aching for an hour where no one needed anything. So instead we went home, and my daughter napped, and I pulled The Homemade Kitchen from the shelf, because what I needed was a promise that if we keep sitting down to eat and listening while we chew, then things will be okay. Alana is very good at that sort of reminder. I randomly opened to her words about the peace she finds alone in a quiet morning kitchen, and I thought, I want that. I read her master muffin recipe and thought, I want those! And then I remembered that I make a pretty mean muffin myself, a muffin that has seen me through some other hard times, so I made those instead. I found a sad pear in the crisper, pretty bruised from a day (or maybe two) in the snack bag and with a bite already taken out of it. Perfect. I grabbed some chocolate chips, I grabbed the nutmeg, I got to work.

It’s not enough, the down comforters and the woodsmoke and the muffins. But it’s how I’m getting through the week. And while I measure and stir, somewhere underneath, I am figuring out what to do next.

Monday thanks, or, I can certainly raise my glass to that.

early autumn window sill

I spent almost a month in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest in late August and early September. It was a wild and wonderful trip, full of tasty food and even tastier conversations with people I have been wanting to hug in person for years and years, and Big Thoughts about the value of a less filtered life. Thoughts for another post!

When I was in Portland I discovered I had packed for late summer on the wrong coast. I had to buy two pairs of jeans and some shoes that were not sandals and I was thoroughly convinced it was time to dig up our hats and scarves and bake a lot of gingerbread. Then we flew home and sweated our way right through baggage claim and I thought, oh right; technically we’re south of the Mason-Dixon line and I guess (sigh) those woolens can hibernate a little longer yet.

But fall has found us at last, even here, and last Tuesday morning I sipped my second cup of coffee and flipped the calendar. November is here. On Saturday my son turned seven (!!). Tomorrow I am crowding into the voting booth with both kids. Later in the month one of my oldest friends will turn into our driveway and my kids will leap on her before she is even unbuckled because they adore this person who, after my beloved cousin, is the closest thing they have to an aunt on this coast. Together we will eat turkey and butternut something-or-the-other and cranberry sauce (this is the one; I’ve stopped searching now), and the next day we will have leftovers on good bread for lunch (either that or this turkey pho, which I haven’t made in a few years but which is really terrific) and we will absolutely crack open some porters and watch the new Gilmore Girls. A little over a month later she is moving all the way to Colorado. People seem to love it there and I wish the same ease and satisfaction in my friend’s fresh start, but I’d be lying to say I don’t also feel bereft. Colorado is much further away than her current home in the Hudson Valley.

But I’ll try not to think about it too much, not while she’s right in front of me to hug. I’m happier than I can say that she’s coming for Thanksgiving. I get to spend the holiday that puts gratitude front and fore with one of the people I’m most grateful to have found my way to in this life. I can certainly raise my glass to that.

I’m going to try doing it here too! It’s been seven months since I wrote here. There’s a lot I could say about why, but the truest and simplest answer is that I’ve been doing other things. I’ve been learning a whole lot of amazing things with my kids, and I’ve been reading a ton, and I’ve been curling up on the couch with my husband watching shows and movies featuring quite a lot of snow. What else? Crazy Eights, mornings by the fire pit, potlucks, the sometimes awesome/sometimes thankless/always necessary task of feeding my family. Walks along the bay. Making hummus and banana bread and meatballs with a group of awesome first and second graders. Chicken coop troubleshooting. A weekend trip to Annapolis. Hamilton!

It’s a tough season for writing, but I love this space, so I’m going to try a gratitude practice here on the blog this month: Monday Thanks. It’s possibly too ambitious, if we’re to judge according to earlier efforts at this sort of thing. And I’m a little nervous to write here instead of in a more immediate and arguably more intimate place like Instagram or Facebook. But when it comes down to it, the stakes are pretty low and the potential returns (I get to flex my writing muscles again, I get to connect with some of you again, and I get to be happier because that’s what happens when you think about what makes you happy) are significant. So here we go!

Maybe this year

Grocery store lot, March 2016.

Imagine, if you will, an enormous industrial stovetop. Six back burners. Imagine every burner with a pot on it, every pot asimmer. The whole kitchen smells like waking to somebody already cooking breakfast, like Thanksgiving, like a happy childhood. Yeah, so those pots are the stories I want to tell here. Nothing’s ready to eat yet, of course. Shall we stretch this metaphor to the very edge of its usefulness? Can I say I guess these stories really do need a good long braise? Shall we turn around and look out the kitchen window while we wait?

Because y’all, here at our house near the salt marsh, it is spring. Spring! Spring is better than winter! It looks a lot like you might expect, especially if you also live in the Northeast. The daffodils opened up a few weeks ago, and then I saw the roadside maples with their blood-red buds, and then it was just BAM! BAM! BAM! Magnolias! Forsythia! Sandals!

And then there is all the stuff that feels so particular to living right here, surrounded by wetlands, supported by the summertime crowds, waiting for vegetables. Most of the ice cream shops have opened back up, for one, which I really should have said before all that bosh about back burners. The crab shacks and seafood markets are open again too. We’re still waiting for mini-golf and the bread stand, but the peepers are singing their lovesick chorus and my husband is turning all that winter cover crop back into the soil and so we know it can’t be long. My brain is racing happily: When are signups for swim lessons? Can my kids stay awake for the Friday night frog hikes in the trails around the lighthouse? Can we help tag horseshoe crabs this year? The pear tree behind the oldest barn, the one loaded with a welcoming committee of juicy fruit when we moved twenty minutes up the road last November, went from tiny green buds to full bloom in the span of just a couple days this week. We didn’t do much more than cram the pears into our mouths during our first walks here last fall, but maybe this year there will be jam or pies or something poached.

Here’s to my own gentle simmers and to spring’s wild rumpus!

Maple buds, March 2016.Bridal veil spirea/Spiraea prunifolia, March 2016.East Point Light, March 2016.Eggs, April 2016.

Three things (you should be making with sweet potatoes right now)

sweet potato slips

1) DINNER | Melissa Clark’s Chicken Curry with Sweet Potatoes (via Luisa at The Wednesday Chef) I would love to tell you my farm kids eat everything, but HARDY HAR HAR, says the universe, DID YOU THINK YOU WERE IN CONTROL HERE? But friends, they eat this. I don’t really have an explanation. I’d like to say it’s because it is over-the-top, knock-your-socks-clean-off, shout-it-from-the-mountaintops good (WHICH IT IS), but so, for example, is this soup, and my oldest won’t touch that with a ten-foot spoon. I’m learning not to parse these things for too much meaning and instead to just say thank you.

2) BRUNCH | These apple and sweet potato cakes with poached (or fried) eggs and a sweet mustard sauce (via Tasty Kitchen) This morning my son ate eggs and toast and clementines with my husband before he (the latter) went to work, and my daughter ate leftover roast chicken and roughly her own weight in pistachios. She ate those while sitting right in the middle of the dining room table because there are mornings when I have no fight left in me. This was after she emptied her whole bookshelf but before she dumped two giant bins of Legos when I thought it might be okay to pee alone and before she dumped the box of Christmas ornaments I may or may not get put away by April. This is how it came to be nearly eleven o’clock and I only had two cups of coffee in me. This is a long way of saying I love my my fine fine father, who FaceTimed with my kids so I could feed myself these.

3) BREAKFAST/SECOND BREAKFAST/ELEVENSES/AFTERNOON TEA/DESSERT | Nancie McDermott’s Sweet Potato Pound Cake (via our old farm blog, which is looking a bit rusty and which I need to dismantle but can’t quite) Always exactly what I want to eat.

This is not the writing I wrote about, not exactly, but like I said, I’ve been cleaning up a lot of Legos. Also kissing a lot of stubbed toes, homeschooling, moving (again), and watching the sun set over the salt marsh. It’s been kind of a lot.

I’ll be back here when I can figure out how to be. In the meantime, we’ve all got to eat. Make some of this good food! And tell me too how you’re warming your own belly and soul this winter.

sweet potato harvest

My haphazard phenology

Hemerocallis fulva/tiger daylily/ditch lily

I want to be a writer.

I’m not talking about someone who sits back while her muse serves up exquisite turns of phrase on a silver platter. I don’t daydream about an advance that pays the bills. I’m not thinking about getting an MFA. I’m thinking about Madeleine L’Engle, who wrote night after night, after her children were asleep, throughout her “tired thirties.” I’m remembering when I would rise at 5 to get in an hour of words before anyone else was awake. And I’m still sitting with this episode of On Being. It made me cry about eight times (about par for the course), including when Maria Popova remarked:

“Those ideas, the best of them came to me at the gym or on my bike or in the shower. And I used to have these elaborate theories that maybe there was something about the movement of the body and the water that magically sparked a deeper consciousness. But I’ve really come to realize the kind of obvious thing which is that these are simply the most unburdened spaces in my life, the moments in which I have the greatest uninterrupted intimacy with my own mind, with my own experience. And there’s nothing magical, at least not in the mystical sense, about that. It’s just a kind of ordinary magic that’s available to each of us just by default if only we made that deliberate choice to make room for it and to invite it in.”

Campsis radicans/trumpet creeper

These early years of motherhood are startling in – nearly defined by – their paucity of uninterrupted intimacy with my own mind, but it’s there. It’s there when I’m nursing my daughter in the pre-dawn hush, when I’m driving to the grocery store, even in that fraction of a moment when I take my first sip of coffee. I used to say I did my best writing in those delicious (and pen-less) moments, but real writing is something I can share with someone else. Real writing is a decision to push through the distractions and exhaustions that reappear as soon as I put the coffee cup back down. Real writing is work.

When I do the work, life is really good. I get words to look back on, hindsight casting a gentle glow on a time I thought I was stumbling through the dark. I get to wade through the mush of my mom brain and figure out what I really think. I get to talk to you, to other writers and readers. And that’s when a remembered bowl of corn flakes and a downpour in the grocery store parking lot and the quiet wilderness of my little backyard turn blogging into something useful: an instrument of encounter.

But when I don’t do the work, all that fades, like so many July blossoms.

Rudbeckia/black-eyed Susan

My haphazard phenology is as concrete a metaphor as I can come up with for why I want to write. Phenology is the study of plant and animal life cycles, especially as influenced by available sunlight, temperature, and precipitation. The most valuable phenology happens at regular intervals and focuses on a discrete physical area – the span of backyard you can see from the bottom step where you sip your coffee every morning, for example, or the same 10-meter stretch of shoreline.

But even my amateur and slipshod observations have worth. They help me understand where I have landed. They help me teach my children about death and patience and wonder, lessons that seemed so easy when we lived on farms and which seemed so hard at first when we didn’t anymore. And these tiny heralds all around us – poison ivy’s first leaves, tiny and carmine; the first whelk egg cases to wash up along the wrack line; February’s robins puffing their feathers and settling into a westward position on bare oak branches to absorb the last of the day’s thin sunlight; even the cocklebur I step on and curse in the dunes during the dog’s morning walk – they tether me, at least for a moment, in time and in place. These years are tricky. My children are one day asleep in the crook of my elbow, the next day climbing the bookshelves, and the next day teaching themselves to read. They need water and toast and a new shirt and kisses and I have not had any coffee yet. She wants to whisk the pancake batter and he wants to know which species of sharks give birth to live pups and I struggle to gain purchase. But I pry the bur from my heel and drop it in my pocket and look it up online when we get home. I think that perhaps the whelk egg cases are a little earlier this year. I am not startled now to unearth a clutch of horseshoe crab eggs when we dig moats for June’s high tides to fill. Patterns emerge from the welter. I am reminded that life – marine and my own – is unfolding with a sound beauty.

Albizia julibrissin/mimosaMay I be resolved and stubborn enough to do more showing up, more noticing, more work.