The Wren's Nest

A space for inspiration, creativity, & discovery

Looking back

I’ve spent the greater part of the afternoon looking through old pictures stored on our portable hard drive.  I’m amazed at how long we have been together, and how we have grown and changed in the past five years.  Three houses, our wedding, Piper.  When I first graduated and moved to Lakeland in 2010, Will introduced me to our very good friend, Holly, and I started renting this dreamy upstairs space of hers.  The rooms were all wood paneled except for the kitchen, and the windows were large and overlooking our future garden space in the front, and an old bench swing in the back.  This was my original Wren’s nest.  Later on when we became engaged and eventually married, I moved all my things into Will’s place (affectionately dubbed the Nut House, being on Walnut Street).  We gave the walls a fresh coat of paint, and with the help of a skateboard moved our baby grand piano into the one bedroom, one bathroom house.  We lived there what seemed like only a few months before I became pregnant with Piper, and we moved into yet another house, where we currently live for the past three years (and where, I’m afraid, I’m beginning to feel restless to move again).  I like looking back at our life together, and seeing the magnetism and joy that existed between us from the beginning.  These pictures bring me back to a time of simple and blissful happiness, and I’d like to share them with you all, perhaps bringing a smile to your faces, too–

Cooking inspiration, lately.

I’m up early this morning.  Piper is asleep and Will is out on a walk enjoying some fresh air before it gets too hot.  I haven’t written lately, though I’m eager to get back into a routine.  Inspiration is coming from a lot of different places lately.  A couple of weeks ago we baked two loaves of Challah, which I served with a spread of homemade dips like hummus, spicy Yemenite Schug, a Moroccan inspired roasted eggplant salad, and slow cooker red lentil soup with a parsley flecked Tahini drizzle.  It was too much and I didn’t want to cook again for a few days.  Since then I have been enjoying clips of Nigel Slater’s show Eating Together on YouTube, where Slater reflects on some of his favorite foods, and then travels across Britain to find cooks from various other cultures who then share their way of cooking said food (take for example custard, noodles, hot pots, or soup).  Well, during one clip a woman prepared Fesenjan, which is a traditional chicken stew in Iran.  I’ve heard of it before when I read Rose Water and Soda Bread by Marsha Mehran, and so wanted to try and find a vegan version to make at home.  Will performed in Tampa the other weekend, and fortunately for me the place was right nearby a Persian grocery store.  It was pouring down rain when I hopped out of the car and came home with a bunch of goodies, including dried limes, orange blossom water, rose water, and pomegranate molasses.  I used the pomegranate molasses for the stew, which is probably the most exotic dish I’ve ever cooked yet.  I found a recipe that replaced the chicken with chunks of butternut squash and eggplant–but I’m getting ahead of myself.  One of the other quintessential ingredients for Fesenjan is walnuts.  You have to toast them so they begin to release their flavor and aroma, and then grind them before adding them back to the pot.  The stew is quite simple other than that, with the recipe I followed calling for some diced onion, turmeric (I’m sure in Iran they use the real deal–Saffron), and cinnamon.  Then you cook it all up–including the squash and eggplant–with some broth and a lot of pomegranate molasses.  Again, this is not the most traditional version of the stew–in fact on Eating Together the woman even used powdered Angelica, and probably no broth as she just used chicken (which would lend its own juices), but it was really delicious regardless.  The finished dish is served up with chopped parsley and little ruby pomegranate arils scattered across the top.  I did stop to ask myself, why am I making this dish in the blaring heat of August?  Though, to my defense, we have been hit with days and days of thunderstorms, which makes this kind of cooking excusable.

So then, even after that, I’m still craving these exotic dishes. I wake up and want to make Gyoza (fried Japanese dumplings) and fresh tortillas.  I guess part of it has to do with the fact that I think Piper will like to eat dumplings, and warm corn tortillas.  After the Fesenjan night, which was a success with us but understandably not with a toddler, I felt I needed to think about what kinds of foods kids like to eat.  I always liked dumplings when I was little, and I thought she could have some fun making them with us, so I decided to give it a try.  Yesterday I spent the evening making homemade wrappers, which was a really cool experience because it was so easy–but a lot of work (easy–just time consuming).  I’m hoping tortillas will be just as easy, as I haven’t made those yet.  Today we’re going to make the Gyoza filling–again in our own meatless fashion–using Tempeh along with the usual ingredients–cabbage, ginger, green onions etc.

Then, also yesterday, I brought home two pie books from the library, and they brought me to my knees.  European style butter, whipping cream, sour cream, whole milk.  I was drooling over pages of picture perfect pies, yearning to bake one myself with real deal ingredients.  Let’s be honest, are pie crusts made with Earth Balance buttery spread the same as ones made with bits of cold, cubed, full fat European style butter worked in?  Probably not.  I’m willing to try, though.  At least they do sell sticks of the stuff, and vegetable shortening, too, which I may have to use–but I just don’t know what I’m getting into here.  Maybe I shouldn’t make the pies at all?  Maybe I should just get some fresh cream and butter from people who love their cows and treat them with respect, at a small scale local farm?  I don’t want to support the horrors of industrial agriculture, or the dairy or veal industry–which are linked–but I do daydream about yogurts, and cream, and cheese.  I know they aren’t the healthiest, but who can pretend that the analogue stuff is?  Cashew cream and coconut cream are healthier than the salty, artificial alternatives, but I find they aren’t good substitutes for all my cooking needs–let’s be honest.  I guess I will have to admit that I just want to be able to make a good pie, or a cheese tart, once every now and then, for the decadence of it.  I know that we shouldn’t eat food as our only comfort to mask other deeper issues, but food is comforting in its very nature, and I see myself somewhere in between–where I do generally crave healthy foods, but every so often want something different.  I don’t know what I’ll do right now, but it seems as though I’m becoming less ascetic in my views as I get older.

Well, that’s it for now–breakfast is served!  I do intend to write again soon.  I’m reading As Always, Julia (the letters of Julia Childs & Avis DeVoto) in the meantime, which has been such an interesting look back into the culture and food of the time… but that is a story for another day!

Videos from Will’s latest show in Mulberry, FL.

Will had a show today in a little sandwich shop called Givahoot Cafe, in Mulberry.  The weather was overcast and rainy, which coupled with the cold I’m fighting left me feeling a bit drowsy.  This cafe, though, had a bookshelf filled with board games and children’s books that kept Piper occupied while I watched Will from a cozy side table.  I was able to take some videos and put them up on YouTube, and I’d like to share them with you all here.

This first video (above) is of a song he wrote titled Dream Away, which started as a poem he wrote in the 90’s.  It’s one of the first songs he played for me when we started dating (in 2010), and reminds me of our evening phone calls, when we would talk into the night, sharing tidbits of our lives and getting to know one another.

This video is of a newer song, and is one of my favorites.  It feels jazzy, expressive, and surprising.  We hope you like it, too!

We were on vacation, and now we’re back!

It has certainly been a while since I last wrote here.  I think, though, that most of you will be glad to hear of the adventures we have been on since you last heard from us.  Will took a two week vacation and we spent most of it in the gulf, watching sunsets and swimming.  I am still in awe of all the nature we experienced in such a short span of time; we saw dolphins from a pier in Clearwater, swam with jumping fish one morning in Siesta Key (which I now hear is not the best of omens–it may mean a larger fish is near by), held a rusty colored starfish and then let it go, and watched a dozen tiny shellfish burrow into the thick slate gray mud that is the Venice beach shoreline.  Though the most beautiful of our animal adventures happened on the way home from our trip to Myakka River State Park.  We had just finished climbing a 76 foot tall lookout when it started to rain.  We took cover in the car, with Will driving slowly down the winding forest path.  What did we see but a family of four deer!  I had never seen deer in the wild before, and yet here I was just a few feet away watching several of them eat.  Later, we saw one run around a bend (rather clumsily, Will thought–though to me it all looked extremely graceful and strong).

I love every minute of it–the lazy hammocks, the balmy heat that comes after the afternoon showers, and then the sun’s glorious last beams of light before nightfall.  In Siesta Key the sun is this huge, orange ball of fire against a darkening sky.  There are people on beaches in every city that stay out to welcome the night.  Sometimes it is easy to forget what a big and wonderful world is out there, just beyond the routine.  There are people that dance with glow sticks along soft shorelines, or stand as still as statues with fishing poles in their hands, overlooking the pier.

Still others, like ourselves, smell a hint of garlic in the salty air, and find ourselves sharing a bowl of bucatini puttanesca and a glass of red wine on a patio in Venice, FL.  We walk along the avenue until we find place that sells mouth puckering lemon sorbet and cool off together after a long day well spent.

Now, after all the beaches, drum circles, birthday parties, and good food, we’re finding a new normal.  I’m still reading the last bit of Dubliners, and beginning to seriously consider starting a book club to host here at the house once a month.  It is good to be back home, and back writing in this little space.

How have you been?

Hugging the horizon in Myakka River State Park, FL.

Hugging the horizon in Myakka River State Park, FL.

Banana bread with Piper, Happiness Soup, and Iron & Wine in the afternoon.

Our afternoon was bathed in sunlight and peace.  I had just transferred some laundry when I felt it; the dining room was all glowing and the wood floor was warm on my bare feet.  I put on some Iron & Wine, who I hadn’t heard in a while, and felt blown away by Sam Beam’s voice and the energy of his music.  I turned up the volume and tied mine and Piper’s aprons on to bake banana bread together.  I peeled three or four small bananas and dropped them into a ceramic mixing bowl for Piper to mash.  She eagerly helped, and stood on her toes on a stool to reach everything.  I went into the kitchen to grab some flour, and when I returned I noticed the cute girl sneaking bites of fruit.  She laughed gloriously and her eyes gleamed mischief as she went in for one more bite, and then another.  We mashed the banana until it was creamy, and mixed it with vanilla and coconut oil melted with organic sugar.  Once we mixed a proper batter (our dry ingredients consisted of Spelt flour, a pinch of salt, and some baking powder) Piper licked the spatula clean.  We sprinkled nubbly walnut pieces all over the top and then I put the bread and its comely brown loaf pan in the oven for 50 or so minutes to bake.

Banana Bread

Recipe courtesy of The Simple Veganista blog.

While the bread baked, Piper and I washed yellow squash in the sink and we began preparing dinner together.  Nigella Lawson has a series (and a cookbook, I believe) titled Forever Summer and one of its premises is cooking along a color scheme.  She has a simple squash and rice soup that she calls “Happiness Soup” because it’s a beautiful yellow-gold color that cheers you just making it.

Happiness Soup

Small cubes of squash (skin on) are sauteed in olive oil until they soften, and are then tossed in about a teaspoon of turmeric.  Nigella then calls for about four cups of chicken stock, but we used a vegan “no-chicken chicken broth” that had the same yellow sheen to it as the real deal.  Then you add 1/2 cup of Basmati rice and the whole thing cooks in 10-15 minutes.  We brought the soup and bread over to a friend’s house to share, and by the time we arrived it had thickened considerably, so I’ll probably be adding more broth the next time I make this recipe.

I’ll leave you with some music–goodnight!

Eats, lately.

Yesterday I had some fun in the kitchen preparing a few colorful recipes from the Simple Vegan Blog, which is run by a lovely couple in Spain.  I definitely want to check out their Horchata and Tortilla Espanola recipes down the line.  Yesterday, though, I decided on their vegan Cobb salad for lunch, quinoa Tabbouleh (which I served with a grilled eggplant salad—from another site) for dinner, and chocolate pudding for dessert.  I appreciate Iosune and Alberto’s efforts to provide quick and whole-food centric recipes.  Even the pudding has a base of avocado and banana, though you would never know it with all of that cocoa and sweet maple syrup.  Also, the Cobb salad totally satisfied my protein cravings, as it calls for cashews, corn, kidney beans and tempeh bacon—all awesome sources of vegan protein.  The quinoa Tabbouleh and eggplant salad made for a nice Lebanese inspired dinner outside.  Next time I’ll add more herbs to the quinoa and less pine nuts to the eggplant, though I really enjoyed it all.  The eggplant was creamy and dreamy, as I roasted it in the oven before scooping out the juicy insides. I stirred in some pomegranate arils for color, which also gave the salad a tangy pop of flavor every now and then.

Happy eating.

A Picnic Dinner

We enjoyed a yummy picnic dinner and some outdoorsy time together this evening.  We piled the bags of goodies into Piper’s little red wagon, which Will pulled to the park while she followed alongside on her tricycle.  Once through the playground gates we saw a big soccer game set up on the field, several families gathered under pavilions, as well as children whizzing by on the bike trail and soaring on swings.  We spread our patchwork blanket on the green between two trees and settled in to watch the action.  Piper wanted to play soccer with the big guys, but eventually found more fun in playing with two little girls who came up to say hello.  The three little ones walked hand in hand for a while, and then found a ball of their own to pass to one another.  Meanwhile, Will and I dug into a southwestern quinoa dish with adzuki beans, corn, avocado, red onion, tomato, and basil in a smoky chili and cumin vinaigrette, as well as a super Israeli potato salad in velvety vegan mayonnaise dressing.  This potato salad is particularly tasty and comforting because it hits so many cravings at once: sweet, salty, sour, creamy, and crunchy.  Boiled peas and carrots, pickles, and onions are all diced quite small and tossed in with the boiled and diced potatoes.  The whole lot is then dressed in a mayonnaise sauce that is spiked with mustard, honey, vinegar or pickle juice, salt and pepper.  The result is a tangier, more colorful salad than the usual variety.  For dessert we had some fun filling sunny cantaloupe wedges with juicy sweet blackberries, and agreed that the melon was the tastiest we have eaten in a long time.

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Long boats

Now that our bellies are full and Piper’s asleep in her bed for the evening, I’ll curl up and read my friend Kim’s newly published book, Love Fortunes and Other Disasters while Will diligently plucks away on his guitar strings in the other room.

Goodnight, all.

The Very Thought of You

Tonight I baked a stone fruit crumble with sweet ripe peaches from the twilight farmer’s market while listening to Billie Holiday sing The Very Thought of You.  The music and the baking suited my mood tonight.  Crumbles are relatively quick and easy to bake, so I was truly able to succumb to the beauty of the moment.  The soft pink and yellow flesh of the peaches and apricots offered their muted glow to the otherwise dark kitchen, and Lady Day’s voice trailed lazily throughout the house as I slowly whipped a bit of maple syrup into coconut cream.  We enjoyed our dessert well enough, though sometimes I find the process more fulfilling than the meal itself – here was one such time.  The recipe was adapted from Heidi Swanson’s original.  I used a bit of vanilla sugar that I had on hand (you can tuck a leftover vanilla bean into some sugar to make your own, as I did), a squeeze of orange juice rather than orange blossom water, and thick coconut milk and coconut oil rather than yogurt and butter.  Now I have had my sweet fix for a good while, and enjoyed every second of it, too.

Sky Dance

I had a funny feeling while recording Will the other evening.  We were filming some videos for his new YouTube account, when I began to feel as though we were living out a scene in some imagined indie movie.  Will carted all of his equipment out in front of Liberty, his VW bus.  The sun was setting, but we still turned the amp on to play outside for a short time.  I set the camera on our old bar stool from the Salvation Army and pressed record.  It was the evening of Mother’s Day and I felt I was attending my own personal concert.  The whole situation felt so intimate and romantic, and yet we were outside in the suburbs probably about to violate some sound ordinance (hence the quirky indie romance movie feeling).  Will has been working so hard on his music lately; he has a gig coming up, a new website that will be going live soon, and plans for a future album, too!  Please check out his very first video, an original classical piece titled Sky Dance, and let us know what you think.

Goodnight,

Wren

Pleasures

I am happy taking slow walks around the neighborhood with Piper, always the same route lately.  In the morning, we often see neighbors watering plants in their front yards, or cracking their front doors demurely, still in pajamas, to let their dogs out for a quick break.  We pass the same house for sale each day – an inviting home made of brick and wood.  Eventually, we meet up with Daisy, the neighborhood cat who comes running to meet us as soon as she catches our scent.  We scratch behind her ears and stroke her back, and are on our way again.  I round my favorite bend, where potted plants filled with flowers that seem forever in bloom line the sidewalk.  Vines creep down an iron gate to hide a pool that lies on the other side.  The windows glint and shimmer as the sun hits the deep antique-blue glasses that line their ledges.  A statue of St. Francis stands peacefully in a shaded corner, while a sign a bit further off reads:  “The kiss of the sun for pardon, the song of the birds for mirth, one is nearer God’s heart in a garden than anywhere else on earth.”

Sometimes Piper likes me to tip the stroller backwards so that she can look into the trees for birds and nests.  Today we saw such a large hawk that I quickened my pace home, remembering the night a neighborhood owl attacked Will for getting too close.  We return feeling as though we had been on some journey – indeed most days Piper will tell me as she senses the last few minutes of our walk approaching, “No mommy, I don’t want to go home yet!”  The fresh air works some magic on us, and it is good to enjoy it together.

More and more lately we eat our dinners outside, around our little round folding table.  Yesterday I spent a good bit of the afternoon in the kitchen, juggling pots and pans to put a meal together that felt memorable and worthwhile the minute we started plating the food.  For about a week or so I had an urge to cook the Yorkshire puddings featured in Anna Jones’s A Modern Way to Eat.  This was a funny sort of urge, seeing as how I have never eaten a Yorkshire pudding in my life, but then I guess I cannot resist foods with a sense of history and place—I’ve been known to spend a day making Persian Barbari bread for the same reason.  The toasted poppy and sesame seed speckled batter sat alluringly in a jug on the countertop, awaiting the moment where I would pour it into smoking hot muffin cups and slide it into the oven where it would go through what only Nigella Lawson could so eloquently call a sort of “kitchen alchemy” and become the tall, puffed pudding towers so commonly eaten abroad.  We ate them with lots of horseradish spiked olive oil, rosemary and garlic roasted potatoes, and broccoli and green beans in tahini sauce with crumbled seed brittle on top.  All of the recipes can be found in A Modern Way to Eat.  Other memorable meals lately have been a tangled bowl of fettuccine in a grounding, earthy mushroom sauce (Anna Del Conte’s Tagliatelle col Sugo di Funghi) and for lunch one day, a Turkish inspired white bean salad and slices of grilled eggplant.  I also mustn’t forget to mention the amazing chocolate chip blondies I baked last week (thanks again to Anna Jones).  I brought them around to a couple of our friends, two older women who I like to visit especially when my mom or mother-in-law seem extra far away.  They enjoyed them so much, and I know them as a bit hard to impress.  Nonna Cathy told me that I had outdone myself this time, and when I had stepped away for a moment I heard her voice trailing, “Her loss is our gain!” and when I returned, found the two were happily eating another couple of sweets.  It feels so good to feed people, though I do very little of it outside of my immediate family.  I’d like to be brave, and cook without inhibitions, and share genuinely, too.

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