The Wren's Nest

A space for inspiration, creativity, & discovery

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.

Abandon

Lately I’m eating hummus and sprout sandwiches, vegetable soup with kale and strips of Nori, chunks of organic watermelon for breakfast, and raw almond butter slathered onto perfectly ripened bananas, all the while pining over reruns of Nigella Bites, which are awfully delicious tributes to full fat cream, Bearnaise, puddings, Crème fraiche, and—forgive me—rare steaks, tiger prawns, bacon and anchovies.  I love Nigella’s unapologetic attitude towards food, as well as her style and overall sense of humor:  she doesn’t take herself—or life—too seriously, and as a result, she exudes a sense of strength and endurance that I truly admire.  Here’s a woman that, rather than feel overcome with guilt or disgust at the sight of meat, can cut into it and say wryly (and quite hilariously), “I love a bit of dismemberment in the morning.”  While we are still very much vegetarian and don’t eat eggs all that often (and milk not at all), what I take away from these old episodes of Nigella Bites is a reminder to enjoy life—and yes, food—but especially life.  As I worry about what is healthy or unhealthy, or “good” and “bad” to eat, I feel (personally) that my attitude toward food becomes somehow disordered, and that the focus is so much on eating that, really, by the time the whole process is over I’m still hungry and not quite satisfied because maybe I did not actually eat what it was I wanted—or needed.  Of course ethics and philosophy are an important part of the discourse, and I feel strongly that we should seek out humane and conscious sources for the food that we eat.  However, the words of our adoptive Italian Nonna, Cathy, echo in the forefront of my mind:  she often says, with a smile, “Everything in moderation—even moderation.”  The truth is, I dream of pavlovas, trifles, custards, and meringue.  Greek yogurt, rhubarb jelly.  Steamed couscous, fat Italian sausages over Puy lentils, and pink salmon over chickpeas.  Spaghetti carbonara, chocolate pots de crème, shepherds’ pie.  A little abandon.

What do you crave?  What’s your guilty pleasure?

Simple pleasures

Yesterday I watched this clip of Nigella Lawson cooking Elvis sandwiches—you know, mashed banana and peanut butter slathered between two slices of bread and then toasted in a buttery pan until crisp and golden brown on the outside, and all warm and gooey on the inside.  Well, I made them this morning and they are a total panacea for the early morning, bleary eyed blues.  The sky rumbled and rain fell while Piper and I sat together at her little table, coloring Care Bears pages from her book and indulging in our warm breakfast.

Later, when it stopped raining, we took a walk and breathed in the most healing of fresh air—that slightly damp kind that lingers after a storm.  Piper jumped in all of the puddles on the way to the park.  I love how the puddles on this one street in our neighborhood always cast magnificent green reflections back up at us, because the street is lined on either side by Camphor trees that have grown to form a little canopy.  The water takes on an otherworldly quality then, as though it is a portal to a similar but alternate universe—one where everything is upside down, maybe.

When Will came home from work we enjoyed our dinner outside.  I have been cooking from Anna Jones’s A Modern Way to Eat.  Anna has this really cool way of conceptualizing recipes into parts of a story, or parts of an equation.  Soups, for example, always have a base, herbs, spices, a hero vegetable (often something hearty like pumpkin, squash, sweet potatoes) , and a backup vegetable that supports the hero (kale, spinach, peas, etc.).  Similarly, the most satisfying and memorable salads often have, in addition to the greens, the following elements:  interest (in the form of roasted vegetables or substantial raw ones such as avocados, radishes, tomatoes, etc.), texture (nuts, seeds, croutons, and sprouts), herbs, and hearty add-ins (lentils, grains, eggs, cheese).  This information is golden for most people who would like to improvise in the kitchen while still being able to turn out a reliably tasty and nourishing meal.  Tonight we ate pan-fried soba noodles tossed in a maple and soy dressing and served with quick pickled purple cabbage, crispy strips of tofu, and peas (Anna originally calls for sprouting broccoli)—this recipe, along with so many other quick and wholesome ones, can be found in her book.

At night, when I’m not too tired, I’ll read in bed until I fall asleep.  I’ve been on a Paulo Coelho kick lately, finally reading The Alchemist and after that, Brida.  I haven’t been back to the library yet, so I have been left to scour our bookshelves at home for something I’m in the mood for at night.  I cracked open my old Beowulf, and of course the first passage I came to described that infamously terrifying Grendel who comes in the night, and knew I had better choose a different book.  Instead, I brought The Old Man and the Sea and The Catcher in the Rye to bed, torn between which to read.  In fact, I started reading both for a few moments until I finally decided on Salinger, and fell asleep a few pages later with the books face down on the pillow next to me (Will stays up a bit later than I do).  I set them there on purpose, because they comfort me and give me wonderful and adventurous dreams.

Speaking of dreams, I’m feeling tired already and will end my little ramble here.  Goodnight, all!

Spring eats

Thoughts on Full Moon Feast

Jessica Prentice’s book Full Moon Feast: Food and the Hunger for Connection has both moved and surprised me.  On a quest for a true feeling of nourishment, Prentice explores traditional foodways and discovers across cultures a deep connection and reverence for the Earth that many of us today are out of touch with.  She connects every chapter to a corresponding moon; every full moon marks the beginning or end of a season and carries with it great significance and symbolism.  Her book follows the natural progression of a year, beginning with a chapter on The Hunger Moon and later exploring such fascinating traditional seasons as The Egg Moon, The Sap Moon, The Moon of Making Fat, and The Moon When Salmon Return to the Earth.  Every passage is ripe with meaning, and I often found myself having to read entire chapters aloud to Will.  Prentice believes we will become truly nourished when we can once again honor the Earth as our ancestors did; she believes in eating as seasonally and locally as possible.  In doing so, we will come to appreciate every season’s bounty.  Whether we are enjoying a goose egg in spring, or a bowl of creamy turnip soup in the winter, we will be fostering a more genuine and sustainable connection to nature.  She urges us to shift our focus toward a smaller, community centered food system, where we grow a lot of our own produce, or purchase the bulk of it from local farmers’ markets.  Prentice discusses the concept of a gift society, whereby everyone is mutually indebted to one another in a way that ends up fostering a sense of community.  These are just a few of the main themes in the completely thought provoking Full Moon Feast.

As a strict vegetarian, I admit to being fascinated by all of the chapters on meat: how to render lard, how to clarify butter, how to boil bones to make a mineral rich heal-all broth.   Prentice discusses the topic with honesty and respect.  In her chapter about salmon, she mourns the plight of this majestic fish that used to start its life in shadowy hideaways along freshwater rivers, later moving to salty waters only to return by some preternatural knowledge to the same home base to spawn (a magical event in itself) and eventually die.  Now, Prentice explains, so much of salmon is farmed that there is no “Moon When Salmon Return to the Earth.”  Additionally, conditions on the farms are so crowded and unnatural that the salmon’s flesh becomes grey and must later be dyed to give the fish its characteristic healthy pink blush.  In contrast, she shares a story of a culture that would catch only as much salmon that could feed its people for a particular season, share the rest with a neighboring people, and release the rest.  The bones of the fish would be cast out to sea in the thought that they would then reassemble, and the fish would become human and return to its home.  If the salmon were somehow offended, it was feared that the fish would not return the next season.  Still, Prentice advocates eating meat, fish, and dairy as part of a diet that she sees as completely nourishing, traditional, and healthy.  While that is clearly up for debate, I still appreciate her reverence for animals and can even begin to understand her thoughts on vegetarianism.  Prentice had been a vegetarian herself for 10 years and had come to develop several health problems, which appeared to go away after adopting an omnivorous lifestyle.  She supports her choices practically and spiritually, stating that ahimsa (non-harming to all living beings) is meant to be interpreted more figuratively than literally, as she believes it impossible to live without even accidentally causing harm to something.  She also takes her argument a step further, suggesting that vegans specifically may be out of touch with the cycle of life, explaining that they may be afraid to face their own death in seeing death on their plates before them.  She also states that animals are killed quite often even in organic farming—land must be cleared for crops, and pests must be dealt with somehow.  She may be a bit misguided here, in that she seems to view all vegans as dogmatic in their approach to their lifestyle.  Most vegetarians and vegans I know will willingly admit that they are not aiming for spiritual perfectionism or purity, but rather expressing their love for animals and the environment the best way they know how.  She does bring up thoughtful points, though.

Well, before I give away the book entirely, I had better stop writing.  It seems I’ve missed dinnertime and everyone is asleep early tonight.  Let me know what you think if you do read it!  We have been on many adventures lately, which I hope to write about soon.  From sharing the beach with sun-kissed spring breakers, to a first time grilling experience at our nature reserve, to strawberry picking at an organic farm 30 minutes away, to a renaissance festival in the woods filled with jugglers and acrobats and plague doctors all in costume, my imagination is full and spinning me wonderfully colorful dreams.

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