The Wren's Nest

A space for inspiration, creativity, & discovery


Last weekend we drove to Apollo Beach in search of manatees.  A Tampa Electric power plant right by the shore provides an unlikely refuge for the mammals during cold winter months.  Warm salt water flows from the discharge canal and back into Tampa Bay, thereby attracting manatees to its source.

We noticed the smoke stacks from the highway.  The manatee viewing center is literally a stone’s throw away from Tampa Electric’s Big Bend Power Station.  The building is impressive and anomalous.  Towering smoke stacks rise from their grassy plot on the earth and into the endlessly blue Florida sky.  Nearby, in cool gray waters, the gentle curves of several manatees’ backs break surface.  Smooth and dark like some river rocks, their skin shines in the sun.

The Manatee Viewing Center sometimes feels like an amusement park, though really it’s not.  What it is, in all actuality, is a bridge you climb and look across in hopes you’ll spot a manatee.  There’s a gift shop, and a learning center, and a few funny cartoon cut out stands where you can stick your head inside and take a photo as a manatee, but that’s about all.  Since we visited in November, we were fortunate enough to see many of these magical creatures.  They are truly captivating; I found myself staring out into their stillness several minutes at a time.  Sometimes they kiss, roll around, or flash their tails, but most of the time they are at rest.  Their faces are large and whiskered, with dark, deep set eyes that give them their gentle–almost sad–and altogether mysterious appearance.

Big Bend Power Station

Big Bend Power Station

More manatees

More manatees

Each speck is another manatee.

Each speck is another manatee.


Sounds of rainfall greeted us as we stumbled out of bed this morning.  The house appeared shadowy and dark all around, save for when a bolt of lightning streaked the sky in its transient fire.  I set last night’s leftovers on the stove, a soothing cauliflower and green bean curry with coconut milk and white rice that Will cooked.  The storm passed over while we cradled warm bowls in our hands and laps.

How many mornings have we enjoyed just like this?  In quiet times I can easily feel what usually comes in more fleeting moments–that is, a sense of connection and being.  I realize the cyclical nature of my life, the comings and goings of seasons, and I am filled with gratitude.

On Saturday we transplanted two large avocado trees that sprouted up in our compost.  One had been growing in a large pot, the other was in the ground already, though too close to the house.  The larger one seems to be having some difficulty adjusting to the transplant, but the smaller, younger one looks strong.  The trees look really beautiful in the yard.  Will dug up some soil from the compost for me, and I sat at our table looking over seeds and then planting them.  I’m hoping for Lavender, Calendula, and a few different lettuces.  I also planted more radishes, and even a couple of Fava beans.

Sunday we helped my parents put up some holiday decorations outside.  My aunt came over to make Sancocho.  I still cannot believe how quickly that woman can take the skins off a root vegetable.  The soup was very hearty, and included veg like boniato, malanga, yuca, green plantains, and chayote.  She grated the plantains and formed the pulp into balls, which she dropped into the soup.  They cooked into dense sort of dumplings.

Last week I did quite a bit of cooking myself.  I set the smoke alarms off when I tried to make sticky-buns, but had more success the following day when I baked up some little crackers for Piper using both vegan cheese and butter.  I adapted the recipe from Catherine McCord’s recipe for goldfish crackers in her Weelicious Lunches cookbook.  I also brought the Dutch oven down to cook an adzuki bean and squash stew one night, and cocoa-spiked chili to go over spaghetti another night.  Along the chocolate theme, I also baked double chocolate brownies with walnuts — and feeling overly indulgent, brought them over to my family’s house to share the next day.

I’ve been reading a few of your blogs, and see that so many of you are enjoying the season as well.  I’m inspired by all of your crafting, cooking, and baking.  Here’s to time spent with loved ones, in and around the kitchen table.


Piper grabbing crackers

Liz Steinberg’s Wheat Hamin

Shorter days and cooler nights have left me yearning for a good book, extra sleep, family time, and mostly–some warm, nourishing food to fill my hungry belly.  Fortunately for me, a few weeks ago I rediscovered Liz Steinberg’s blog Cafe Liz, a vegetarian food blog all the way from Liz’s kitchen in Tel Aviv.  I immediately started to bookmark all of the dishes I hoped to cook (or better yet, would be cooked for me).  Think crispy, pan-fried potato and mushroom kubbeh, invigorating Persian herb soup, and tonight’s dinner: a wheat berry Hamin with sweet, slow-cooked winter vegetables.

I enjoyed prepping the meal early this morning.  Piper sat nearby and watched a children’s show as I peeled and halved a large butternut squash, whose orange flesh invigorated me.  I pressed the heel of my palm against our kitchen knife and into six cloves of garlic, the weight of which encouraged them right out of their skins.  I chopped the fronds off of a bulb of fennel, and sat admiring the resulting heart shape for a while.  I popped prunes into Piper’s mouth, calling them candies, and then returned to the cutting board to chop several into sweet little pieces.

The bottom of the slow cooker is lined with the wheat berries, on top of which the rest of the ingredients are poured and then drenched in a decent amount of water.  The stew is left to cook long and slow–Liz suggests something like 12 hours!  We were able to get away with half the cook time at a higher temperature, and could still taste the depth of flavor resulting from the long cooking process.

The resulting stew is gorgeous:  the wheat berries hold their shape so well, and their slight chewiness is the perfect contrast of texture to the melt-in-your-mouth, marshmallow softness of the butternut squash, carrots, and fennel.  The onions are completely caramel, and the garlic cloves have that mellow, roasted flavor (without the trouble).  The only thing missing was a good glass of wine!

What has been the most comforting meal you have eaten lately?

On the comforts of Steel-Cut Oatmeal

My mother-in-law knows how to cook up a mean pot of steel-cut oats.  Whenever we go to visit for breakfast or brunch, there’s usually some of that magical, warm porridge waiting for us, along with a proper cup of tea.  Mom cooks her oatmeal with hearty add-ins like raisins that plump with the slow heat, agave, and just a hint of cinnamon spice.  Oftentimes, we will top off our bowls with chopped walnuts, and maybe a splash of almond milk.  Last week, I was remembering our breakfasts at Mom’s house, when I tried my hand at recreating her famous steel-cut oatmeal here at home.  Happily, the porridge tasted just right and I sat down to two bowls!

Lately, I find that I love the dense, chewy texture and the subtly nutty flavor of steel-cut oats.  Cooked simply, with water and a touch of salt, and finished with but a pat of butter and a light drizzle of syrup, the natural flavor of the oats sings.  Heidi Swanson of has this great section in her cookbook Super Natural Cooking that highlights seven different ways to liven up steel-cut oatmeal.  One morning, feeling particularly decadent, I followed her lead and cooked the porridge until it was very thick, and then stirred in a generous amount of full-fat coconut milk.  Then, I topped our bowls with toasted coconut flakes and chunks of ripe, sticky-sweet mango; we all found that to be super satisfying.

Yes, cooking the oats from scratch does take time.  I usually let mine go close to 40 minutes before eating.  If you have the time, the actual cooking is low-maintenance.  I rather like watching the pot bubble and pop, stirring every so often.  On the other hand, a lot of people soak their steel-cut oats overnight to save on cooking time, though I have yet to try.

Wishing you warm meals in good company on the cooler days ahead,


Tropical Steel-Cut Oatmeal

Tropical oats with coconut milk, toasted coconut flakes, and mango chunks.

A festive meal for a Monday

We have been enjoying a lot of colorful meals lately.  Flecks of green and red find their way into our salads and even our pancakes, in the form of cucumbers, tomatoes, radishes, scallions, and red bell pepper.  Sometimes, even an inky black will present itself, such as in the hot, crushed peppercorn sauce that dribbled over pieces of fried tofu that we ate two weekends ago (that kind of meal leaves a lasting impression).  Today, I once again noticed nuggets of vibrant and contrasting colors before me.  As I tumbled jewel-like Puy lentils overtop diced white onion, yellow bell pepper, and orange sweet potato, I began feeling energized.  My senses awakened further as I added (with the help of my little apprentice) a bit of minced garlic and some cumin, turmeric, Garam masala, cayenne, and ginger to the pot.  The spiced lentils–recipe courtesy of The Diva Dish–cooked long and slowly in the crock pot.  The warmth and subtle heat of the dish, in addition to its bold color, was so welcome this Monday evening.

In our garden, lately.

Our little garden keeps on growing.  We hope to get green beans soon, as our plants are producing flowers.  The leaves continue to creep up the 6-foot trellis.  We have harvested radishes several times now.  We have been so successful in growing them, and so pleased with the taste, that I’m confident in recommending new gardeners try growing them as well.  They mature in about a month or less, and are so fun to see peeking out of the soil.  We even eat the leaves, which are spicy and pleasantly tart.  Just last weekend, we harvested our two eggplants.  I cut them in half, scored them, drizzled them with olive oil and roasted them in the oven until their skins were crinkled and their insides soft and mellow tasting.  We ate them with a squeeze of lemon juice, and that’s it.  In the herb garden, I counted five baby cilantro plants growing.  Growing herbs is really a worthwhile endeavor for anyone interested in cooking (or eating).  I can’t tell you how many times a bundle from the store has either been too big, or too small.  I much prefer taking what I need from the backyard, over purchasing herbs that end up drying out in a few days.

On Tuesday, we started some seeds in an old cardboard egg flat.  We’re looking forward to our second chance with plants like lemon balm, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, chives, borage, and dill.  I know the weather might not be quite right for some of these plants, and that others are difficult to transplant, but I’m still optimistic.  The cardboard disintegrates, and October air in Florida is still quite mild when compared to October air in the northern states.

Well, it is time to turn off the sprinkler.  Here’s to hoping for a bountiful harvest ahead.

A day at the beach

Piper and I sat together on the edge of our favorite fountain and read A Day at the Seashore.  The sound of water rushing over stone, the feeling of a cool breeze and warm morning sun against our skin brought the story to life and left us longing for our own seaside escape this weekend.  Naturally, on Saturday we got our bags together and headed toward Sarasota.

Two or so hours later we arrive in Siesta Key, with our car parked in a tiny and sandy lot that has a long and winding trail leading up to the beach.  Piper enjoys running through the tall grasses, and Will thinks he spies an old and broken skiff hidden in the overgrowth.  Finally the water appears on the horizon, as well as a boat with a bright orange sail named Our Girl.  Our hearts soften and melt a bit as we finally spread our blanket out on the white, sandy shore.  This is what bliss feels like.

We walk toward the ocean.  The water feels cool as it laps against our feet.  Will has his goggles in his swimsuit pocket and is eager to swim.  While he delves into blue-green depths, I tiptoe further in with Piper in my arms.  She laughs explosively when suddenly, I throw her into the air! — then, catching her, squat down into the water until it is all around us.  Jump! Swim! She shouts.

We find shells and collect seawater in a green bucket.  Will pours sand inside the bucket, then swirls his fingers around in a mesmerizing way to mix it until it forms just the right consistency — something like I imagine wet concrete to look or feel like.  The mud drips off of his fingers and forms elegant patterns as the droplets stack up one by one and then dry in place, hardened by the still fiery October sun.

Later in the afternoon we leave to explore this new-to-us town.  We find a shop called simply: Scandinavian Gifts (Baked Goods & Grocery).  I want to explore.  Where I think that I will find aisles of foreign food, I find colorful linens, aprons, clogs, Christmas ornaments, trolls, branchy wreaths hanging from the ceiling, Swedish horses painted on everything, a mobile with tiny Viking ships, and for some reason — a little shelf with Russian nesting dolls.  I am equally delighted.  All of the crafty, folksy, unique and global treasures fixate me for some time.  Will and Piper join me in the store, and there we spend a good hour until the shop closes and the restaurant next door opens.

We eat at a little place called Veg, which has separately dedicated vegan and gluten free menus.  We share a bowl of creamy butternut squash soup that comes in a tall ceramic cup and feels warm in my hands.  The soup is delicious, and tastes a bit of cinnamon and nutmeg.  Our salad is shredded kale piled high with purple cabbage, carrot and beet sticks, pea shoots and sunflower seeds.  The dressing is sweetened with orange juice, but also includes crushed dried papaya seed for a taste of something a bit unusual.  Our dinner is literally a steaming volcano of layered quinoa, spinach, marinated Portobello mushroom, and mashed potato with a cherry tomato on top.  The chef clearly loves food — cooking and playing with it!  Yet, as unbelievable as our dinner tasted, it was dessert that truly satisfied and delighted me.  Both of ours came served in delicate dessert glasses.  Mine was hot, with a deep chocolate brownie topped with several generous scoops of vanilla coconut ice cream and drizzled with caramel and chocolate.  Help.  Everytime I take a bite it feels as though little fireworks are going off in my mind.  Piper is asking for more ice cream, please?  Will’s glass is filled with the creamiest, most fulfilling coconut cream pudding topped with toasted coconut.  It has been years since we have eaten pudding.  It takes a lot of restraint not to eat his dessert, too.  I balance the sweet with a rare cup of coffee.  It comes with a little decanter of almond milk.  I pour some in, and Piper finishes the milk remaining in her “baby cup”.

The sun looks like it is setting now, so we hurry back into the car and drive once more toward the water.  We arrive to an orange sky ablaze over a calm ocean, whose waves have crept quietly up the shore since we last sought it.  I am in awe — we all are.  A group of friends sit near the shore with a bottle of wine.  A couple leans in close to one another.  The three of us walk barefooted in the sand.  Skimmers glide across the water catching their evening meal.  Tinier shore birds scurry along the sand.  The sky is almost a rainbow now, with reds and oranges, purples, blues, and blacks.  The stars begin to peek out of an ever darkening sky.  I feel overwhelmed with the vastness.  The sight of the stars are almost unbelievable, because it has been that long since I have gazed upon them.  To see them with my family, in this moment, is something I will always remember.  We all lie down in the sand, and gaze at the sky.  Some stars are really planes.  But mostly, the stars are stars, light years away, but always there.

This is what bliss feels like.

In the kitchen in the afternoon: Bob’s Red Mill Vegi Soup Mix and Apple Pumpkin Muffins

Bob’s Red Mill makes a dried soup mix that cooks up thick and creamy in less than an hour.  Simply called Vegi Soup Mix, it includes wholesome ingredients like yellow split peas, green split peas, barley, lentils, and small pasta.  One cup of dried mix simmered in four cups of water for under an hour feeds two comfortably, although doubling the recipe will leave those used to seconds more satisfied.  I added a small brown onion, carrot, and stalk of celery to the pot.  The beauty of keeping a dried mix on hand is that you are able to get a meal on the table quickly when you need to, though you are still able to build upon the basic recipe, layering flavors and customizing to suit your tastes when you have the time to be a bit pickier.  The Vegi Soup Mix brings me back to the early days of my marriage, when I was first learning to cook for Will.  I remember many a soup and stew cooked in our new kitchenware, including the Bob’s Red Mill mix — quite frequently, too.  We eventually bought some cookbooks, found new recipes, and forgot all about some of our old favorites.  I only thought to buy a bag of the mix again recently, when I spotted it in the health food store and realized that Piper might like it.  I’m happy to report that she did indeed enjoy the soup.  We did as well; I added just a bit of Bragg’s Liquid Aminos (like soy sauce) to my bowl, which made it taste even better.

For dessert we ate some homemade apple pumpkin muffins, which I put together using a recipe I found on the Minimalist Baker blog.  I like these because they are filled with healthy, comforting foods like pumpkin puree, rolled oats, flaxseed, sautéed apples, and cinnamon.  They turned out really well — soft and chewy on the inside, golden and a touch crisp on the outside.  I love the way some of them baked up with craggy tops, because of the way the batter settled around the apples.  On the way to Bob’s house to pick up eggs later on, we brought two over for he and his wife to eat.

Baking today felt really healing.  I know sugar isn’t exactly healthy, but something about swirling the spiced batter around in the old ceramic bowl, about watching the sifting flour fall like snow and form a miniature mountain peak as it settled once again, about tying on my apron, about biting into a soft apple — warm from the pan — just felt perfect.  It also must have been something about the late afternoon, how the sun looked through my windows and how the preheating oven radiated warmth throughout the kitchen.  Music, like Dave Matthews Band and Ray LaMontagne, filling the room and food with good vibes…


Treasures from the farmers market

We all enjoyed our visit to the farmers market this morning.  On our way over, we passed pumpkins, scarecrows, skeletons and ghosts on front porches and in trees.  The fresh October air and spirit of the season seemed to coax many people outside today.  Women carried their babies in slings on their hips as they darted from stand to stand.  Dogs as tall as some children stood in line for food with their companions.  As for us, we met up with our market friends and came home with many colorful treats, though not before we enjoyed some lunch with our old friend Kim.

At our friend Miriam’s stand, I felt captivated with all of the colorful produce.  We took home a bag of small, jewel-like heirloom tomatoes, one generous, ochre tinged cauliflower, a bag of baby kale, and a few ruddy heirloom apples.  From another stand, we bought a bag of Brussels sprouts.  We were also excited to see Adrian, The Bread Pedlar, peddling some delicious and freshly baked sourdough bread.  We dug right into a spelt boule and a whole wheat country loaf that was deliciously burned on top.  The last of our treasures is actually a little bag of pink Himalayan salt.  I enjoyed smelling the various smoked salts at this particular stand.  One of them reminded me so much of a campfire, and of being up in the mountains in North Carolina.  We had buried potatoes around the fire and almost forgot them when we were all through.  They ended up being very shriveled, but they were still so satisfying, even split between friends.

I’m getting hungry again just writing about all this.  Our lunch was delicious, too.  We ate at a new restaurant downtown.  The chef was very accommodating to our needs, and managed to help us pick out some tasty vegan options.  Will and I shared a generous portion of on-the-fly potato hash, to which the chef added some roasted root vegetables as well as the typical onion and pepper combo.  We also enjoyed splitting a grilled avocado and garden salsa sandwich, made with none other than the artisan sourdough bread baked up by The Bread Pedlar.  Good bread makes all the difference.

Later, I’d like to roast up some of the vegetables we took home and possibly mix them all up with some Israeli couscous for a quick dinner.  I love to eat the veg up when it’s still very fresh.

How was your Saturday?  What are the markets like where you are?


Farmer's market treasures

Farmers market treasures

Our garden and the thoughts that grow from it.

Our beets, Swiss chard, carrots, broccoli, and cauliflower seeds never sprouted.  Instead, two eggplants hang from a hardy plant where we never knowingly placed a seed.  A second generation of sunflowers has cropped up here and there, more as a result of messily feasting birds than of our own will.  We did share one radish last week.  The crisp bite encouraged us to plant several more rows, which appear fine.  Our string beans are slowly crawling up the lattice, though not quickly enough to escape some damage from unknown pests.  The weeds creep in where many of our seeds still sit dormant in the ground.  Two tiny cilantro seedlings are all that is left in the herb garden aside from a poor looking Genovese basil plant with only a few leaves clinging to its scrawny brown stalk.  Yet, winding around the wooden compost fence is none other than a beautiful Morning Glory vine in bloom, a relic from several seasons past.

What kind of funny tricks are these, where that which grows best requires the least effort, and that which we have labored long hours over seems to struggle the most?  Our garden is clearly telling us to “just Be.”  I have been so busy in the past weeks, and not very connected to my truest wants or needs — which involve, in a few words, becoming very un-busy.  Still.  In the past month and a half I have been sick several times, most recently with a 24hour stomach bug.  I wonder about the disconnect between my efforts and my body’s responses.  Despite a number of green juices, time spent at the gym, and plenty of home cooked and healthy vegan meals, I still wind up in some type of G.I. distress.

I think about the change of seasons, the recent Hunter’s moon, my inner voice calling for me to be still, telling me to purge unnecessary things, and to simplify.  My mind has been so active recently: I always want to do, try, make, go, think.  Yet, in breaking from routine there may be something to glean greater than the sense of accomplishment that comes with checking off a mental to-do list — a sense of calm, peace, knowingness and stillness that is always there, beneath the layers of conscious noise.  What beautiful surprises will crop up there, in that space?


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