On not fretting

Saturday was my son’s second birthday, and it was a really good one.  I didn’t, in the end, get everything done I’d been planning: my dad and I had what turned out to be overly ambitious plans to build him an easel, for example, and I never did get around to making a birthday banner we can use for all our birthdays every year.

Still, when I think back on the celebrations, things really did go exactly as I’d hoped.  And I think it has a lot to do with the intention I set very deliberately when we started planning: Keep things simple. Remember that gathering together in celebration of this little guy – the eating and the laughing and the gratitude – is the point. Don’t get lost in the details. Don’t fret. Don’t fret.

And you know what? I didn’t! So what if the icing wouldn’t set, if the cornbread sank low in the middle, if the wood for the bonfire was damp, if the sink was full of dishes! We had ourselves a very merry day indeed. We cooked together and instead of stressing over whether dinner would be ready in time or what to do about that icing, we sipped wine and told jokes and chopped sweet potatoes and tasted the chili to see if it needed more salt. And then we filled our bellies with really really good homemade food and we sang and laughed for the birthday boy and as we sat around that fire at the end of the night, I felt an enormous peace.

Which brings me to my point: I think the kitchen is a great place to choose not to fret. It’s an easy place to fret, I know. So many people to accommodate, so many recipes to try, so many techniques to understand, and what must be five dirty dishes for every clean one you manage to wrangle back onto the shelf.

For me, personally, the kitchen is probably the place where I have the greatest ambitions, and so it’s also the place where I experience some of my deepest disappointments. There’s so much I want to do well in the kitchen: I want to make a realistic and delicious menu plan every week, I want to freeze and can and ferment, I want to involve my son as much as possible, and I want it to be tidy in there at least sometimes. And I do not do all of this well. Sometimes I feel really defeated.

I do think it’s really important to ask ourselves what kind of home we want, to have some kind of framework on which to hang the minutiae of our days, to have a big picture that guides us as we decide what can get done and what will have to wait. But I’m coming to think it’s equally important to learn how to let go. To choose not to fret.

Here are a few tiny little ways we’ve learned not to fret in our kitchen:

  • I use salted butter in my baking and nothing bad happens.  Most baking recipes call for unsalted butter. Unsalted butter just doesn’t taste very good on toast or pancakes or sweet potatoes, so we never buy very much of it. I do try to keep a pound or so in the freezer, but I find I want to bake way more often than I remember to thaw that butter. So, I use regular salted butter. If I remember, maybe I use a bit less salt than the recipe calls for to compensate, but often I don’t even do that. I have had no catastrophes.
  • We don’t peel our vegetables. I learned about not peeling from my husband, and it’s been very liberating! We do peel winter squash and onions and garlic, but that’s it – we don’t peel potatoes, carrots, zucchini, cucumbers, sweet potatoes, or beets. Everything seems to taste quite delicious, and I’m betting it’s healthier to boot. We do grow most of our own vegetables on our farm, so we know there’s no pesticide residue or wax on them. If you buy most of your produce at the grocery store, be sure to wash it very well if you’re going to join our little No Peel Revolution.
  • I find most cultured dairy products can be used interchangeably. So I use what I have on hand — yogurt, buttermilk, sour cream — regardless of which one the recipe calls for.  If I don’t have any of those, I’ll add a tablespoon or two of vinegar or lemon juice to milk and let it sit for 5 or 10 minutes. Works great.

These really are small things. But sometimes a small thing is all I need – to find my footing, to remember to be gentle with myself, and to get on with the merry work of feeding my family.

How does it work in your kitchen? What tips can you share for keeping it simple and not getting lost in the details? Please share!

(some potatoes we didn’t peel)


Food for Thought Friday

Yeah, yeah. Technically it’s Saturday already. But I’m still up and I’m excited to launch what I hope will become a regular feature around here. Food for Thought Friday will be a weekly list of links – tasty morsels, if you will, for belly and brain.


Simplest Applesauce

I am of two minds about cookbooks.  If you’ve ever sat in the comfy chair in my kitchen with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, you’re probably laughing out loud right now, because you’re remembering my enormous cookbook collection, the one that doesn’t even fit on one six-foot bookshelf.

I’ll post a picture sometime.  I’m not kidding.  ENORMOUS.

I adore cookbooks.  That shelf overfloweth but I still got a new cookbook last week and, umm, another one is on its way in the mail.  It’s probably all to do with what they represent to me, which food writer Laurie Colwin summed up very nicely in her book More Home Cooking:

Cookbooks hit you where you live. You want comfort; you want security; you want food; and you want to not be hungry; and not only do you want these basic things fixed, you want it done in a really nice, gentle way that makes you feel loved. That’s the big desire, and cookbooks say to the person reading them, ‘If you read me, you will be able to do this for yourself and for others. You will make everybody feel better.’


Only, sometimes I think we have forgotten how to feed ourselves – that we have lost our confidence and intuition in the kitchen, that we are at least sometimes overwhelmed by the task of planning a week’s worth of square meals for our family, that the idea of cooking from scratch without a recipe can feel as impossible as driving blindfolded.

The reasons for all this are probably pretty complicated, and I don’t mean to attempt a tidy explanation here in this post.  But I think the answer is just to cook.  To cook more.  To cook often.  To cook alone and with our partners and with our kids and with our friends and with our neighbors.

And there are times when I think my beloved cookbooks get in the way. I know that sometimes I’m paralyzed by choice – at any given moment I might have four cookbooks piled atop one another on the kitchen island, each with nine recipes bookmarked. Other times I pass a recipe by because I don’t have dried rosemary or I’m out of lemons or I don’t have the right kind of mushrooms or I only have chicken stock and not beef stock.

But I’ve been rereading all the Little House books over the last couple years and there’s never once mention of a cookbook.  I’m going to talk about Ma Ingalls for a minute here – cautiously. I don’t think we need to work like she did to feed our families well. She spent almost every waking hour of every day of every week of every month, all year long, keeping her family fed, and that’s not what I’m urging. I also don’t mean to romanticize the adversity or the loneliness or the dangers of frontier living. But gosh … Ma worked up a blackbird pot pie when the blackbirds were eating all their corn, and she made her own sourdough when blizzards kept the supply train from bringing essential pantry items like yeast, and there was (almost) always fresh homemade butter on the table. Caroline Ingalls did not have a giant cookbook shelf, and she did not have food blogs, and she did not have Facebook. She didn’t have measuring spoons or an oven thermometer either – or even an oven at all, for many years.

So how did she do it?

Well, first off, she managed it all because she had to, because if she didn’t figure it out her family would starve.  That’ll motivate you.

But that’s not the whole story, of course.  We know she cooked with her sisters and her sisters-in-law and her neighbors and women at church.  We know her daughters cooked alongside her from the time they were very young and so I think it’s fair to assume she did the same as a little girl.

And I think that when you do something your whole life, you’re not scared of it – it’s just something you do. Maybe it starts as something someone teaches you but then it becomes second nature. I want to give that to my son.

When I am feeling like I do not know what to feed my kid – when he has refused everything except bread and yogurt and pretzels for four days – when we’re out of baking powder and the milk has gone sour – when what with putting in another load of laundry and stubbing my toe on a Matchbox car and changing diapers and writing a new post for our farm blog and trying to figure out how many CSA shares to offer next year and going on a long meandering walk in the woods with my son and looking at mushrooms and wading in the creek and forgetting about my to do list for a while – when what with all that it’s all of a sudden 6:30pm and I have not even thought about what to cook for dinner —

— well, sometimes, when all that is going on, I make applesauce.

It’s not dinner.  But I swear to Pete it’s food.  Good food.  Easy food.  Real food.  And I can do it without a long list of ingredients, without three burners and five bowls, without stress. Without a cookbook.

Simplest Applesauce

Use whatever kind of apples you have on hand, and as many of them as you want. I used three Honeycrisps for the pot above.  Apples you’ve neglected for weeks in the crisper drawer or apples that are bruised from when your toddler threw them at the dog work great here.  I’ve listed some optional ingredients, but I recommend making this applesauce with just apples and water the first time.  Apples are naturally sweet and flavorful and become even more so after the gentle heat of cooking. It’s seems almost a miracle to make something so good out of almost nothing.

optional: one cinnamon stick or a good shaking of ground cinnamon, a little honey or maple syrup

Quarter and core your apples. I never peel mine.  Cut the apple quarters into chunks – a young child can even do this step with a plastic knife – and put them in a saucepan or Dutch oven.  Add just enough water to come about an inch up the sides of the pot, maybe a little less.  Add any optional ingredients now too.

Cover your pot, turn the burner on medium-low, and cook until the apple chunks are tender, about 15 minutes.

Remove the cinnamon stick if you used it. Purée with an immersion blender (the easiest way, if you have one), or purée in batches in a food processor, or mash with a potato masher.

Lasts maybe a couple weeks in the fridge and for a long long time in the freezer!


Slow Cooker Winter Squash Soup with Curry and Coconut Milk

This soup is really very good.

And after the initial effort and swearing required to peel your winter squash, it’s really no trouble at all – maybe twenty minutes of your time while your baby naps or your toddler hides the dog’s food under the living room couch and in your rain boots. Ahem.

I’m going to confess: my crockpot, a wedding gift, gathered dust for a few years after we got married. I wanted to use it, really I did … but I just didn’t know quite how to integrate it into my cooking.  I was 30 when I got married.  By that point I felt pretty confident in the kitchen, and I just didn’t understand what it could do that I couldn’t do.  Well … I have a two-year old now, and I get it.  Also, I love it.  LOVE it.

And it’s not just for soups and roasts! It’s my favorite way to cook a pot of beans, and did you know you can make jam in a slow cooker too?  Tales for another time.

For now let’s talk about the soup: it’s warm, it’s gorgeous, it’s a little spicy, and it’ll fill you right up.  Really quite the thing for these chilly October nights.

Slow Cooker Winter Squash Soup with Curry and Coconut Milk
adapted from Better Homes and Gardens

You can use almost any kind of winter squash here.  Butternut is a classic, and we’ve also made it with a deep orange kabocha (that’s the squash in the photo at the top of this post). We really like the little kick this soup gets from the Asian chili sauce, but you can certainly leave it out if you like.  Finally, our curry powder is fairly salty and we like the soup as is, but if you have a low- or no-salt curry powder, you’ll probably need to add more salt. Taste before serving and add additional salt as needed.

1 winter squash, about 2 pounds, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 medium onion, chopped
1-4 cloves garlic (depending on your feelings about garlic!), minced
1 tablespoon brown sugar or whole cane sugar
1 tablespoon curry powder
2 cups chicken or vegetable broth
1 14-oz can unsweetened coconut milk
1 tablespoon fish sauce or soy sauce
1 teaspoon Asian chili sauce (like Sriracha) (optional)

Combine all ingredients in slow cooker, cover, and cook on low 4-5 hours or high 2-3 hours. When the squash is soft, use an immersion blender to puree the soup until it’s smooth and velvety.  You can also puree the soup in batches in a food processor or blender – be careful!  Or you can use a potato masher; the soup won’t be quite as smooth but will still taste delicious.  Ladle the soup into big bowls, top with a dollop of plain yogurt or sour cream or a squeeze of lime juice, and serve with lots of bread!

For a nice protein boost, add a cup of dry lentils at the beginning — very tasty!

When the weather starts to turn, do you crave soup too? Leave your favorite recipe, or a link to a favorite recipe, in the comments!