Looking ahead to Friday’s post begins for me, usually, sometime on Wednesday, which this week was the gray and shady afternoon in which Tim and I ventured way out to the west side of town, to Bellevue, the Nashville neighborhood of older shopping plazas and brand-new housing communities where Perl, a new-to-us café Yelp users compare to Marché and Scoutmob currently has a deal on, is located. Armed with my Christmas gift of a yellow Anthropologie journal and wearing the gray-and-white-striped vintage dress I found last week at Goodwill’s sale, I sat with Tim through 20 minutes of highway and unfamiliar neighborhoods and launched into the purpose of our midweek date: quizzing him about big dreams for the future. “So tell me,” I began. “If there were no limits and no obstacles, what would you want to do this year? What do you wish you could work towards? What are your big dreams?”
If you didn’t catch Ashley Rodriguez’s October Not Without Salt post featuring cherry chocolate chip cookies, you really missed out—and I say that not just because of the killer cookie recipe, but also because of the thoughtful writing on perfectionism and art and creative work that surrounded it. A riff on Ashley’s previously posted THE chocolate chip cookie, these cherry chocolate beauties are part toasted almond flour, part wheat (or, in our case, einkorn); made with ground flax and water instead of an egg; and studded with cherries and chopped chocolate throughout.
Here we are, the day after Thanksgiving,
I have this photographer friend Louie. I met him through Becky, the friend who was with me the first time I met Tim, and I’ve been following his Tweets and Instagrams and blog ever since that one random afternoon sitting across from him at Burger King or McDonald’s, watching him eat chicken nuggets, before the three of us went someplace else. Louie’s a cool kid—I say kid because, people, Louie is all of 22, as in the age I was when I started grad school, the age at which the only things I’d ever published were local newspaper articles about book clubs and town meetings, the age when I didn’t know much about cooking, much less about cooking and writing about it on a food blog. But Louie’s 22 looks a lot different than mine did, and he’s a crazy-good photographer shooting, get this, upwards of 20 weddings a year. So when he came into town last week from Chicago, asking for some help expanding his food portfolio, we were only too happy to have him over for our regular Sunday lunch with friends.
(All shots in this post courtesy of Louie Abellera Photography.)
So let’s talk about Sunday lunches. Tim’s been keeping this tradition with the same group of friends since before I knew him. When we were long-distance dating, and I’d come into town for the weekend, Sunday afternoons would have us all gathered together, grilling and assembling a meal to share at a dining room table. When my family came to town in February, when friends have come to visit this year, if they’re here on a Sunday, they come to our shared Sunday meal. It’s a nice constant, one thing that is consistently the same, no matter who else joins or leaves or what the time of year. And while usually we do it at our friends’ home, this week, we moved things to our table, where the sunlight was especially nice around 3 PM and where the four kids gathered around a blanket in our spare bedroom to “picnic” while the adults shared salads and pizza on our flea market chairs and vintage wedding plates.
Tim and I were talking recently about how every time we have people over for a meal, there’s a salad. He brought two giant salad bowls into our marriage and they get regular rotation in our eating and entertaining plans. A meal just doesn’t feel complete without a giant pile of leafy greens involved. This week, the salad couldn’t have been simpler: an arugula mix topped with sliced pluots, sliced red onions, balsamic vinegar, olive oil and seasonings, nothing else. We tossed it using my newest kitchen treasure, new Anthropologie servers, thanks to birthday gift cards from our family.
The pizza was just two batches of this thin and crunchy soaked crust recipe, decorated with four different choices of toppings. We baked them two by two before everyone arrived, trying to keep things as warm as we could, then placed them all on the table on cutting boards so people could serve themselves.
Then there was a quick zucchini-tomato salad, and water with lemon, and wine, gifted from Becky when she was in town a few weeks ago.
Last, for dessert, there was almond cake, a gluten-free, incredibly simply recipe my sister-in-law made for us while we were in Ohio and that wowed us so much, it was the first thing we thought of for Sunday’s meal. Light and sweet and with a nice crumb, the kind you expect cake flour, or at the very least all-purpose flour, to be necessary to achieve, this cake is made from a combination of almond flour and coconut flour, four eggs, butter, honey and a few other little things. It’s wonderful, especially topped by homemade whipped cream. (The cake and the whipped cream were made the day beforehand, and I put them together just before we ate.)
After dinner, the kids joined us around the table for card games, and Tim and I cleaned up the kitchen, and my brother-in-law had the football game on TV. Once all the guests had left, Tim and I agreed about the rich pleasure of hosting, of getting to have people into your home, give them your food and watch them eat. It is the single best part of cooking, this sharing around the table, if you ask me.
“You take two cups of milk and two cups of cream and warm it on the stove,” Tim’s saying to me from the dining room. I place our medium Le Creuset saucepan, the cream one with the handle, on the back burner.
“OK, then what?” I call back to him.
“Add ½ cup of Sucanat and stir until it dissolves.”
While the sugar combines with the milk and cream, I set out a bowl and fill it with six tablespoons of water, then toss five teaspoons of gelatin over the top.
I return to the stove. A couple minutes and a few stirs later, the sugar’s totally dissolved, and I remove the saucepan from the heat. I add vanilla extract and almond extract, stir, and pour the saucepan’s contents into the gelatin-water bowl. Stir. Let it all dissolve.
“Then I just pour it into the cups?” I say to Tim, thinking aloud that this has been too simple, wondering if we’ve somehow skipped a step. He’s in the kitchen next to me now, right beside me while I divvy up the mixture, pour it into oiled ramekins and set them in the fridge.
“I told you it was easy,” he responds, his back to me now while he begins washing dishes and setting them to dry. This is not the first time I’ve made panna cotta, nor Tim’s, but it is the first time we’ve made it together. Also, more notably, it’s the first time the process has been so easy that as soon as we’re done, I’ve got it memorized, repeating the whole process back to Tim minutes later when we settle in on the sofa, and I take out a piece of paper and write it down.
Tim made this exact same panna cotta recipe for me, minus the almond extract, I think, a few weeks ago, when one or the other of us heard someone say “panna cotta,” developed a craving and quickly passed the obsession along to the other so that pretty soon, both of us, regularly, were saying out loud, “Doesn’t panna cotta sound so good?” “I wish we had some panna cotta right now!” and “Let’s get some cream at the store so we can make panna cotta.” But it wasn’t until late one night, when the sky had already grown dark, that we finally made good on the daydreams—and side by side with a Netflix movie, ate rich, luxurious, creamy bowl after bowl of it, alongside raspberries, licking our lips as we went. This panna cotta isn’t the kind of craving that abates when you feed it, the kind where you, one night, make yourselves panna cotta, and then for months thereafter give it nary a thought: no, sir. This panna cotta is the chocolate chip cookie of the magical custardy world: with every bite you take, you just want more.
So that’s how we’ve found ourselves in the kitchen tonight, panna cotta chilling in the fridge while we clean the kitchen and return to our laptops, long work projects calling our names. It’ll be past 10 p.m. when the desserts are finally set enough to warrant sharing one, and the next morning when we finally get to turn two out onto plates and top them with sliced figs and honey.
But even after we do, after, between the two of us, we’ve consumed dish after dish after dish after giant wine glass filled with panna cotta, the rich cream cut by the sweet and caramel-like milk layer, and it’s all gone, every last bit, less than one day after it’s made, we look at each other and still think the same thing:
Let’s make more panna cotta!
When we go home, it’s not five minutes before I’m bounding up the stairs to my room, the room with mocha-colored walls that my dad let me pick the paint for, where the bookcase is still filled with my books and the windows overlook a backyard I’ve watched, year after year, turn from green to brown to white winter snow before my eyes.
I plop down my bags and head back to the kitchen, a kitchen where the fridge holds unending options, from last night’s leftovers to fresh cherries and strawberries to kombucha. At night, Tim and I share the big wooden sleigh bed I’ve had since eighth grade, and we hear my parents’ voices in the room below us before we fall asleep. My brother makes us banana pecan pancakes for breakfast, and my mom bakes a chicken pot pie from a book I love, and Tim pulls together spinach-ricotta gnocchi, and I chill a tray of coconut dreams.
More than anywhere else we go, maybe because it’s familiar, maybe because of who’s there, home is refreshing, a place where I’m not just telling myself to relax but where I actually do. There’s no work. Nothing to clean or water or respond to. Nothing pressing. Four people who love me are an arm’s reach away. We drive up north, and it’s OK when my Internet stops working. I don’t have to stay on top of email. Everything slows down.
What’s so wrong about spending peaceful hours on a porch swing, cuddled up with your husband, listening to the wind rustle the trees, hearing the frogs and the birds and a boat buzzing by on the water?
Our grand plans each day involve friends to see, recipes to play with, places to take pictures of, stores to visit. Some days, we’re just sitting around, me and Tim and my family, watching movies or reading books or, even, thinking and being still.
Between the two trips, when we’re back from Wisconsin but still with a few days in Illinois, I read this New York Times article (via Joanna) on busyness, about how our culture of iPhones and emails and pressure has turned us into tense, high-stress people caught up with how important our work is (be it writing or administrating or Web designing), perhaps in an effort to make ourselves feel like we’re important, perhaps without realizing what we’re doing at all. And I think how much I relate to that, even from the perspective of half a week away.
In it, author Tim Kreider says this:
Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.
Necessary to getting any work done. This is not the idleness of laziness or sloth, the idleness that means doing nothing; rather, he’s describing the idleness of being quiet, being still, giving your mind space to see. I keep thinking about that, about how we all need this kind of time to think and to process, whatever or personalities or job titles or geography. We need to find regular ways to disconnect—and in a world that makes it incredibly hard to do so—if we are to have any meaningful connecting at all. It’s the first time I’ve ever really considered getting rid of my iPhone, much as I love it; or finding a way to abandon Facebook and help myself remember to pursue real connections in light of the quick-contact perceived ones.
Could it be that the rest I enjoy when I go visit my family, the ability to put other things aside for a while, is a rest my body, and my mind, needs more often? Could it be that there’s a way to find that in regular life?
I’m still thinking about it.
But along those lines, what I want to know is this: How do you find time for quiet, especially, but not only, in terms of the creative process and work? Do you find it necessary? Is disconnecting a part of your regular routine? Do you schedule it in your days or does it happen naturally?
And in the meantime, I bring you those coconut dreams—a raw, gluten-free, six-ingredient recipe inspired by a dessert I love from a local Nashville bakery; one I’ve been wanting to re-create ever since tasting them at The Jam coffee house (which is great! and if you’re in Nashville, go!) but which I only, finally found the uninterrupted creative space for while I was on vacation, in Illinois and in the woods, in the midst of a few days away from it all, resting and remembering what it is to move slowly, embrace where I am and, to see.