Category Archives: fall/autumn

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!

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

A simple pot of lentils

lentils

I found some pretty deep peace in a simple pot of lentils this week. It happened like this:

We’ve been hunkering down and making do/merry pretty well, all things considered – imagined Autobot space voyages to Pluto for magical ice, daytime baths, long read-alouds on the couch, good coffee and mugs of bone broth with ginger and cayenne – but it is also true that we’re still coming down from the joyous mayhem of presents and travel, that the weather outside is very grey and very wet, and that all four of us have massive, dizzying, ugly colds. To say I look forward to the moment when my husband walks in the door at the end of the day is a study in understatement.

Tuesday around 4pm: I get a text that a meeting is running long and he’ll be at least an hour late. I’m not mad, of course, but that doesn’t stop a knee jerk inner growl. I yawn and rub my temples, my daughter whimpers on my hip and wipes her snotty nose against my shoulder, and my son leaps off the table and lands with a ruthless thud. “Mom? What’s for dinner?”

Running on empty and knowing I’ve been by neither farm nor store since our return from the North Carolina mountains, I look in the fridge. Hmm. Lots of cheese. Very old milk. Three kinds of mustard. Pickle relish, yeast, simple syrup, tomato paste, miso, wrinkled grapes. Leftovers of indeterminate origin. It’s not looking good.

Popcorn and smoothies is not a terrible dinn– I begin to tell myself.

But I don’t want popcorn and smoothies I interrupt. I want something substantial and healing. I want protein. I want plants. Yes, you’re really tired. No, smoothies for dinner don’t make you a bad mom. Cook anyway.

I close the fridge. I think suddenly of the More-with-Less Cookbook, written by Doris Janzen Longacre and published by the Mennonite Central Committee in 1976 as an appeal to thrift in the kitchen and a call to arms against the global hunger crisis. I haven’t reached for it in a long time, but it is homely and modest and practical and that’s what I need tonight. I pull it down, find a recipe for Basic Cooked Lentils, and get to work.

Both kids are playing with the dog’s bowls under the kitchen table. I smile, put a couple cups of rice in the rice cooker, and slip out the back door, rummaging through our upright freezer out in the shed for some frozen chicken broth. I wrestle it out of its Ziploc armor, drop it into a big pot on the stove, and set the burner to high. I rinse a cup of lentils and as I agitate them in the sieve under running water I feel my mental fog lifting. The kids laugh and I hear dog food scatter and all I think is it feels good to feed my family. I add the lentils to the broth along with a bay leaf and a pinch of salt and turn everything down to a simmer. I look in the fridge again and surface with three leeks, shriveled and pretty gnarly but not rotten. Perfect. I put our big skillet on another burner and set half a stick of butter to melt in it. I peel away the (many) dried outer layers of the leeks and chop off their roots, slice them, rinse them well, and drop them in the skillet. My daughter clings to my leg with another soft whimper.

“Hello, sweet girl,” I say, hoisting her to my hip and kissing her forehead. “I know you want snuggles now. But I need to get dinner ready.” Like magic her brother appears with a big ball and a grin, and she turns to him with twinkling eyes, already wriggling free.

I step onto the back porch, where we often keep a crate or two of farm vegetables. I’m not hopeful because I know we haven’t filled the crates since our Christmas travels, but lo, there beneath a handful of wilted lettuce leaves sits one plump carrot – it looks a little tired, sure, but not so bad. I bring it inside, give it a quick scrub in the sink, dice it, and add it to the leeks along with another small knob of butter and some curry powder.

Miraculously – or perhaps because I am ignoring them – the kids don’t need anything. All the base components of the meal are cooking now, and I can turn to the tinier tasks of stirring, tasting, adjusting spices. My mind meanders pleasantly. I think of curries, of how little I know about authentic ones, of how much I love them anyway, of the lunchtime curries I ate at any of the half dozen little restaurants along East Sixth Street in the East Village and of the many approximations I’ve cobbled together at home. Almost seventeen years ago I bought two books from a man sitting on a quilt outside a train station in Chennai. One was Gandhi’s autobiography and the other was called Indian Cookery: for use in all countries, by E.P. Veerasawmy. For no good reason I haven’t cooked from it much (despite the back cover’s admonition that it “should be part of any cook-proud housewife’s library”!). But one big lesson from its first chapter has lingered with me for years: you must cook your curry powder or curry spices in the fat with your onions and garlic for several minutes, before adding any coconut milk or other liquids, to cook off their raw flavor. I’d like to learn more someday, I think, about how to really build layers of flavor in a curry. I think of the pact my husband and I make (and break) every year, to each pick a cuisine and cook from it once a week. Maybe this will be the year.

I think of my enormous cookbook collection. I think of what a thrilling time this seems for cookbooks in general: vibrant, clever flavor combinations; deep explorations of single ingredients or techniques; endless options for all kinds of eaters; and of course the beauty of the books themselves. I don’t get to do it much these days, but I love to sit with a stack of cookbooks and a cup of tea.

There’s a clear trend right now toward clean, wholesome cooking, whether you tend toward marrow bones and raw milk and home cured bacon or collard wraps and almond milk and meal-sized salads (or all of it, like me!). But there’s also a clear trend toward luxury in book design: heavy matte paper, breathtaking full bleed photographs, obvious care and cleverness in layout. It’s an interesting juxtaposition.

I think suddenly, absent any guilt or shame: what if I only had three or four cookbooks? I don’t mean what if I had to pick my three or four favorites from this crazy collection. I mean: what if, by choice or circumstance or culture, I just wasn’t into cookbooks? What if I was just a confident and unfussy home cook with a few worn references tucked on the counter between the coffee pot and the fridge? More-with-Less, maybe. The 1979 Fannie Farmer? A cookie book? What would that be like?

Our own little family straddles these questions of abundance and scarcity every day really: work that means access to the highest possible quality of produce and eggs and meat, smashed up against a pretty spartan budget everywhere else. Hmm. It’s a lot to think about, and tonight I am grateful to be muting the chatter and making some simple food with what I could rustle up.

I check the vegetables. The carrots aren’t quite done, and over in the pot, neither are the lentils. I scrape the curry mixture into the lentils and pour in another cup of broth. My phone buzzes again: another hour late. I put a lid on the pot, turn the heat to low, and gather my children into my arms.

Wishing you and yours a joyous new year. May your bellies and hearts be as full as mine.

* * *

A Simple Pot of Lentils
adapted from More-with-Less Cookbook, by Doris Janzen Longacre

I like this over rice or another grain. If you do too, get that started first. Then combine 2 1/2 cups broth or water and 1 cup rinsed lentils in a pot and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and add a bay leaf and a pinch of salt.

In a large skillet, melt several tablespoons butter or warm several tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. Add an onion (chopped) or a large leek (sliced and very well rinsed) and anything else that sounds good or is lying around threatening to go to waste (chopped small) – a stalk of celery, a carrot, a red pepper, a few turnips maybe. Sauté until the vegetables begin to soften. Add some chopped garlic and continue to cook for another minute. Now add some spices or herbs. A tablespoon or two of curry powder is nice. Or try some thyme or rosemary and some black pepper. Italian flavors work great. Don’t skimp. Saute for a few minutes more and then scrape the vegetables into the pot of lentils. Add more broth or water if things seem dry. Taste the lentils. If they’re done, simmer everything for a few minutes more. If they’re not, bring everything back to a simmer, put a lid on the pot, and go read with your kids.

Adjust seasonings and serve over grains. Top with a dollop of yogurt or a squeeze of lemon juice and some chopped parsley, if you like.

(seven posts in seven forty-two days)

The rest of it

over broadway

Sometimes the sour looks and the careless words and the doubts make such a ferocious racket. Maybe, probably, almost certainly the racket dons a mask and tries to pass as truth when you’re getting very little sleep.

So let me take a sweet moment to remember the rest of it: one mother, one baby, one 5-year old, and the 19 pounds of fleece/wool/Gore-Tex required to go anywhere this time of year. Dashing with my boy through the drizzle into our favorite coffee shop for hot chocolate. A slow drive up the coast, through sleepy shore towns and across silvery sounds. Wreaths on balconies. Windblown shacks teetering on stilts above the water. Empty osprey nests. Filling an empty diner with our laughter and squeals and stories. Bacon. A white paper bag of donuts tucked quietly under my arm by our waitress as we headed back out into the bluster. Dinosaur bones, fast slides, and 28 wild turkeys in the rain at the playground.

And then this morning: a boy making his own scrambled eggs and talking a blue streak while his dad made me coffee. This album. All the cars pulled over at the end of Beach Ave to watch the waves crash, and all the cars parked where the canal empties into the mouth of the bay, watching the ferries. The way such disparate strangers gather in an accidental kinship of awe and delight warms me every time.

(seven posts in seven days)

(Only one more to go! If I post again by Thursday it’ll be seven posts in 21 days,
which doesn’t have quite the same ring, but is still satisfyingly mathematical.)

Enormously gratifying (also: eggnog!)

Regarding my progress in my seven posts in seven days challenge, this is post #4 on day #6. Not perfect, but not bad. Onward and upward!

steam

I’m thinking back on the wintry drinks of my childhood, and I think I can sum up my happy memories in two telling words: Swiss Miss. There was the occasional waxed paper cup of hot cider after a haunted hayride, to be sure, and I only have to close my eyes to see my dad’s green Stanley vacuum thermos of coffee bouncing on the black vinyl passenger seat of our sky blue Volkwagen Beetle on the occasional thrilling dirt road shortcut to KinderCare. But it was really all about the Swiss Miss: Swiss Miss to warm fingers and belly after caroling, Swiss Miss halfway through my frostbitten gig as a shepherd in our church’s live nativity, Swiss Miss from the snack bar during the third quarter of high school football games (when we marching band folks were permitted a short break), Swiss Miss after marching in our town Christmas parade.

What was it exactly? One packet was never really enough to make a satisfyingly creamy drink with 12 ounces of water – and that water was always either lukewarm, requiring Sisyphean effort with a plastic stirrer to dissolve the lumps of powder, or scalding, and you never could make yourself wait, rushed as you were to feel the tiny marshmallows on your tongue before they melted completely, so then you’d burn your tongue and it would hurt for two days. None of this diminished my love for Swiss Miss in the slightest. And I’d wager to guess that in another twenty years, my own son will recall his packets of hot cocoa mix at our favorite deli with at least as much fondness as our nights in front of the stove with real milk and a box of cocoa.

Let’s not beat around the bush: mainly it was the sugar. Rare is the kid who can resist it. But there was also something enormously gratifying about how fast you could turn something that looked like powdered tempera paint into something that smelled of cake and snowfall and Christmas break. It was like magic.

And so eggnog – the stuff in the carton with its musty nutmeg and slimy mouthfeel – really didn’t stand a chance with me in 1989, but a quarter century later, the real stuff has my heart. We make it a couple times every December. Sometimes it’s on offer at a small solstice gathering with friends, and I like to sip it when we decorate the tree too. It is, of course, lovely with bourbon, or rum, or brandy, but there is little that compares to the gleam in my son’s eyes or his frothy mustache when he drinks it, so I usually hold back the booze and we adults just add it to taste, if at all.

sunny eggs

 (seven posts in seven days)

Eggnog
adapted from Alton Brown

About the ingredients: lucky as I am to have such easy access to such high quality ingredients, I’m often reluctant to suggest you use “the best you can afford.” Most people can’t afford that stuff, and I feel strongly that a wholesome family life doesn’t depend on pastured eggs. But because eggnog is raw, taste and safety matter enormously here. Make sure you feel good about where your eggs, milk, and cream are coming from.

4 eggs, separated
1 tablespoon plus 1/3 cup sugar
1 pint whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
generous grating fresh nutmeg (about 1 teaspoon, or to taste)
3 ounces bourbon, rum, or brandy (optional)

Using a stand mixer or handheld electric mixer, beat the egg whites to soft peaks. Add 1 tablespoon sugar and beat to stiff peaks. Pour the whites into a small bowl and set them aside. You don’t need to clean your mixing bowl.

In your mixing bowl, beat the egg yolks on medium speed until they begin to lighten. Add the rest of the sugar and beat until dissolved. Add the milk, cream, nutmeg, and optional liquor, and mix on low until just combined. Gently whisk in the whipped egg whites.

This is best served right away, but leftovers can be stored, tightly covered, for about a day in the fridge. You’ll need to shake the jar before drinking leftovers.

Serves 4-8, depending on serving size.

* * *

Mark Twain said, “Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough.” Does that mean I can keep talking about eggnog?

Alton Brown’s recipe really is everything I want in eggnog: it’s rich and festive and worth waiting for, super easy to make, and delicious with or without booze. But Molly’s great-grandfather J. P. Hartt’s boozy eggnog was the first stuff to open my eyes to a world beyond the carton in the supermarket dairy aisle, close to ten years ago now, and if you’re having a party, you should consider it. Also, two years ago I made this vegan eggnog. You won’t confuse it with the traditional stuff, but it’s really very good in its own right. But wait; there’s more! I had written off storebought eggnog completely until my friend Abbie – who farms in Vermont with her family and knows a thing or two about good dairy – encouraged me to check out Organic Valley’s eggnog. Whoa! Game changer! Real food ingredients! Pastured cows! Really worth seeking out in a pinch or if you just don’t fancy making your own. But if, perhaps, you do fancy more kitchen experimenting … has anyone ever made aged eggnog? Three years! Whoa again! I want to do it. And finally, convention be damned, I really want to try this rose and cardamom eggnog (and everything else in that post).

What did you love to drink as a kid when the weather turned or during the holidays? What do you love to drink now?

solstice

In any case

flames

Monday started sweetly enough: steel cut oats piled high with yogurt and apples and drizzled with maple syrup, and coffee of course, always coffee, and then the family yoga class we’ve been joyously starting our week with for a couple months now. But Monday also started with some deep yawns. It felt less like the beginning of the week and more like the next in a long string of long work days for my husband. Farming is like this: lots of weekend work and lots of last minute demands. I think I surrendered to it more easily though when it was our farm and when it was happening a field away. Work and family life were all mashed up together. In any case, the day was cold and wet, and we passed lots of it bouncing off the walls inside, and when late afternoon rolled around I was very, very ready for the music class we’ve also been loving this fall. We dashed through the parking lot in the rain to find the walls of the music room torn to pieces, drywall and plaster dust and exposed lumber everywhere, with nary another confused family in sight; I’d clearly missed, or misplaced, the memo. My pocket buzzed: a text from my husband saying there’d been a delay with some equipment and he wouldn’t make it home until two hours after bedtime. I took a deep breath. We dashed back to the car, and I buckled the kids in, and I slid into the driver’s seat. “Well,” I said. “Shall we see if anyone’s Christmas lights are up yet?”

And so we drove around this beach town for an hour, listening to Elmer and the Dragon on Audible and looking for lights. It was perfect. And when the baby wouldn’t sleep and we all had a Prince dance party in the living room instead, waiting for my husband? Perfect too.

(seven posts in seven days)