I remember a party at my friend Annette's house, years ago. Some of it, anyway. Not the guests. Or what was served. Or the time of year, or occasion, even. (Barbecue? Birthday? Random Friday?). None of the five W's, actually. But I remember, tack-sharp, this tiniest part: total befuddlement over board books.
I remember walking into her youngest daughter's room, and facing a shelf full of board books, and wondering over why on earth the child still owned such things. She was, after all, a whopping four. Well past toddler-hood. And the youngest. And so, not storing them for up-and-coming sibs. It seemed akin to finding a fifth-grader, still in possession of binkies and rattles. I just couldn't fathom: why the chunk lit?
I get it now.
Took me awhile. (Said daughter just started her Freshman year of college.) But I get it.
I spent last Tuesday sorting the contents of Zoë's bookshelves. The impetus was the swell bequest of a desk, something Zoë's room has needed since late last summer, when Zoë's room became Zoë's room. She's a scribbler, this one, a writer, a list-maker, a note-taker, a drawer, a user of pen, paper and pixel. The time, it was high. But no desk was in budget, or on scale, or right for her funny, awkward, already-full space.
Until last week. A dear kind friend, readying to move back to the Northwest, asked if perchance we needed a (no, we need nothing, house is full up, can't squeeze in another thing!) desk. Specifically, her own darling childhood desk. Hello, fate.
And hello purge. Adding a desk meant subtracting other somethings, in this case, a small mountain of books. Culling is always funny business, equal parts weepy sentimental and thrilling heave-ho. Being a former bookstore employee, lifelong book hound, and fierce fan of print, I've accumulated a *few* books, over time. Consquently, I'm an ace weeder-outer.
But this particular sort was something special, something new. See, somewhere between last December and last January, Zoë learned to read. Like, read read. Every child comes at this skill at their own pace, and she was right on schedule. And then, I really don't have a clue. She went from slowly sounding out letters, carefully constructing each accumulation of letters into meaningful w-o-r-d-s, to pounding out paragraphs, wholesale.
In, like, a week. Weirdest thing.
(Weirder still, that I forgot until now that this is exactly how she learned to talk. Just: BOOM. Must be her way. Sometimes, I am so glad for this space. It's my recipe file, scrapbook, and brain, all in one.)
And while she didn't exactly jump from Hop on Pop to Percy Jackson, overnight, hoo-boy, she wanted to. She begged to be allowed access to chapter books. Raced through every levelled reader that came home. Didn't pause when school let out. And finished up her first week of first grade by flopping down with a stack of books. For ninety minutes.
That's my girl.
(Now if we could just get the socks off the chair and down the chute...)
What this meant, for me, last week, with the arrival of the desk and accompanying need to make space, was a minor re-assessment of her library. Minor, here, being spelled m-a-j-o-r.
I realized, as I began to pull books from shelves, and check in with reality, that we were capital-D Done with an entire chapter of books. Biscuit is history. Fancy Nancy, unnecessary. Ditto, every last levelled reader. Baskets and baskets of which we've accumulated, over the course of three kids. I have, of course, been through this process already, twice before. But twice before, I just passed them down.
This was different. This was serious. This was final, real-deal purge-territory.
And it was good. Off the shelf came every. single. book. Hundreds and hundreds, whisper-thin and chapter-thick, Little Critter to Little House (the latter, my yellowed, much-read, bedraggled copies, Big Woods through First Four Years). And into the donation piles went pounds and pounds of books we're well and truly done with. And after I got past the gaspy-achy bits, I whooped over what it all meant. A newly minted fully-fledged reader, who devours any printed matter in her path. And a final goodbye to every early reader, books so mind-numbingly, inexplicably bad, it's a small wonder kids ever learn to read. Thank heavens for Mo Willems.
We kept all our Willems. And all our Henry and Mudge. Mr. Putter and Tabby, also. Actually, everything Rylant. Because Cynthia Rylant is right up there with J. K. Rowling, in my book. And Frog and Toad, for sure, no question. Frog and Toad are forever.
And countless board books, besides.
Because as I sorted, I realized reading level and value are deeply uncorrelated. That just as I've learned I may return to A Little Princess, our read-aloud, and find the bookmark moved six pages forward; and just as I must be careful where I leave The New York Times, which everyone now can (and does [but shouldn't always]) read, we all, none of us, are done with Goodnight Moon. Or the frayed hot pink copy of One, Two, Three!, which taught my firstborn to count. Never mind that he's now learning algebra. Or the well-nibbled, odd, excellent But Not the Hippopotamus! Or The Very Hungry Caterpillar, or all my old Joan Walsh Anglund, or the gentle kind cheer that is Pete's A Pizza, or the entire ouevre of Seuss, or good old Harold and his purple crayon or ...
Let's just say, if some of this world's finest words reside in slender spines and cardboard pages, so be it. Back on the shelf they go. Also: Annette, I'm hip to those board books. Fourteen years late, but I get it.
I also get quinoa. Even though those words make me wince. To paraphrase Nicholas Day's send-up of miso over on Food 52, "quinoa is so hot right now—here's why you should cook with it, anyway."
See, quinoa and I go back years. Decades, actually. Though I take no credit. It was my Nana—a glittering, remarkable gem of a person, who somehow has never appeared on these pages—who first introduced me to the tiny seeds, waaaay back in the mid-1980s. Think about that. We're talking Michael Jackson, neon galore, Apple IIe, hair out to here. Berlin was still split in two, for goodness sake. Nobody but nobody, outside Peru, knew quinoa. Except my Nana. Typical.
I have no idea how she found the stuff, but find it she did, and love it she did, tucking it into salads and pilafs and, most often, soups, where, she'd point out, the cue that the pot was done was the seed's signature curlicue.
So esoteric were the seeds, I can't say I saw them for sale for a good ten years, after she died. But when I finally did, I scooped them up, as much for the memory as the eating.
In my kitchen, quinoa finds its way into salads more often than soups. I've played with dozens over the years, but Megan's Spring send-up was a hands-down favorite, on my mind (and my plate) as long as Spring lasted. I mourned, a little, when Summer kicked in. And then, seconds later, started dreaming of Fall. They were very good dreams. And even better realities.
Early Fall's bounty is the ideal foundation for Megan's framework of quinoa + herbs + ample veg. In this iteration, I roasted the veg, two pans full of earliest Fall's finest: one a mix of corn and romano beans, the other a full sheet of slender eggplant. Both were slicked with coconut oil, a fat I can't recommend enough for roasting any veg, but especially eggplant, whose flesh transforms under coconut's spell. If you take nothing else away from this post, take this: two eggplant, sliced and well-salted and blasted at high heat until caramelized. The results are sweet and salty and melting and crisp and utterly, ridiculously more-ish. I've eaten a pound, on the spot, from the oven, burning finger and tongue as I go. More than once. If you don't do eggplant, do this. It is transformational.
The roasted veg are tossed with quinoa, plus fistfuls of fresh parsley and mint, plus walnuts for additional crunch, plus a dressing of cider vinegar and, for sass, pomegranate molasses. Mercy me. I called it lunch all last week, and am forcing a few days' wait, before repeating. We'll see how long I hold out. I could eat this mess, in all its variations, for about ever. The variations being half the beauty. The formula (quinoa + seasonal veg + ample herbs) is endlessly adaptable. I can see this with roasted butternut + pecans + roasted kale. Or delicata + pomegranates + feta + mint. Or brussels + bacon + maple browned butter. Or sweet potatoes + cabbage + slivered apples. I've added chickpeas; lovely. And yolky eggs; likewise. And tossed the whole through with arugula; swell. Parsnips are begging for a part.
No matter which way you play it, you've got nutty crunch and tender sweet and caramelized bits and kicky and sharp, all of it downright twinkly, on account of that herbal bright. Good stuff. Quinoa's old hat to me, and all over everywhere, right now, but done up in this way, it's all new, again, and so, so, so very fine. I get it, all over again. If you haven't already? May you get it now, too.
Coconut-Roasted Eggplant (et al.) with Quinoa, Herbs + Pomegranate Molasses
Serves 4 as a main; 6 as a side
Please note: you will need two rimmed baking sheets (half-sheet pans) to roast the veg.
2 cups cooked quinoa*
1 pound eggplant (I used 2 large Japanese eggplant)
1/2 pound romano or green beans
3 ears of corn
4 Tbs. coconut oil
1 small bunch parsley
1 small bunch mint
1 heaping cup walnuts, toasted**
2 Tbs. vinegar (cider, sherry, something mild)
2 Tbs. pomegranate molasses
salt + pepper, to taste
Preheat oven to 450°. Place two oven racks in lower third of oven. (They can be close. The baking sheets are low-profile.)
Top and tail Japanese eggplant, halve lengthwise, then slice into 1/2" moons. (If using globe eggplant, cut into 1" cubes.) Toss onto one baking sheet. Top and tail romanos, cut into 1" lengths, and toss onto second sheet. Shave kernels from corn cobs directly onto bean baking sheet. Dollop 2 Tablespoons of coconut oil on each sheet, and sprinkle generous 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, over each. Place trays in warm oven for 1 minute, to melt coconut oil, then remove, and toss veg well with the now-liquid oil. Shake to re-distribute veg in an even layer, and return to oven. Roast veg for 15 minutes, then flip and shake veg well. Reverse trays, back to front, top to bottom, and roast another 10 minutes, or until eggplant are burnished and chestnut. Corn and beans may take another 5-10 minutes. Remove when a smattering of corn kernels are caramelizing and collapsed, and beans are just beginning to go gold in spots.
Remove veg from oven. Allow to cool 10 minutes, then toss with cooked quinoa. Let cool 15 minutes. Rinse and chop herbs (tender stems and all), and add to room temp veg and quinoa. Roughly chop the toasted walnuts, and add. Drizzle vinegar and pomegranate molasses over all, and gently, thoroughly toss to coat. Taste: more salt will almost surely be needed (I added another teaspoon at this point). Adjust salt and pepper; add more acid if needed. I found the coconut oil ample here, but you can certainly loosen the salad with some additional olive oil, if you wish.
Enjoy warm, at room temperature, or straight from the fridge, all the Fall long.
*I follow TheKitchn's spot-on, simple quinoa cooking directions, and get great results, every time. The only step I add is this: once the quinoa's done cooking, and off the stove (step 6), I slip a clean doubled-over dishtowel between lid and pot (taut, so that it doesn't touch the seeds). The towel absorbs any residual moisture, during the 5-minute resting period, ensuring georgeously fluffy quinoa, every time. Note, too, that quinoa keeps brilliantly in the fridge for a week. I often cook up a large pot (1-1 1/2 dry cups) at the beginning of the week, and add to soups, salads, and breakfast, for days to come.
**Toast walnuts in a preheated 350° oven for 12-14 minutes, or until the the kitchen smells of maple and the nuts are a twitch darker. Set a timer and stay close. Five extra minutes, and incredible becomes inedible. Allow to cool before adding to salad.