Walking into the kitchen for water, just now, I catch a squirrel red-handed. Seedy-pawed? Whatever. Guilty as sin. And he knows it.
He's finally, after days of trying, knocked the birdseed ball from our crabapple. And he isn't shy. And he does not dawdle. His jaws and paws are working at something like light-speed, simultaneously breaking up the dense ball, ferrying the goods to his mouth, and stuffing both cheeks to bursting, besides. He's a blur of fur and seeds and suet.
He looks, for all the world, like my firstborn, on his first birthday, faced with his first chocolate cake. Alternately dazzled at his good fortune, and sure it will vanish as quickly as it came. Navigating these impossible poles by inhaling the manna, by the fistful.
I should shoo him away. (The squirrel, that is. The son's a goner, in the chocolate department.) Return what's left to the tree, for the birds.
I can't muster much grudge against any animal, living outside, in this weather. Though today is, in fact, almost balmy. Warm enough that I cleaned my car, on impulse. Warm enough that fluffy white flakes are falling, as I type. The sort the skies can only manage when the mercury bobbles about around freezing. So unlike the hard tiny grains that fell last Tuesday and cancelled school. The sort the skies couldn't cough up at all, last Thursday, when with wind chill, it hit twenty-two below.
All yours, buddy, I think.
This picture, in other words, bears pretty much no resemblance to our days, right now.
Nor does the next one. Nor does anything that follows.
Ferns and pines and fleece feel about as near to me, now, as saber tooths and togas. Ancient. Remote. Theoretical.
Never mind that we were ensconced on Seattle soil, not even two weeks ago.
Holidays and endings and plane travel are each so funny, that way. The way they stretch time. As if it's elastic. Or old-fahsioned taffy. Or one big funhouse mirror, ridiculously tall here, hilariously squat there. As if time is fluid, instead of fixed, a variable instead of a constant.
And maybe it is. Maybe that's the very reason we have holidays, endings, airplanes. To pause time, interrupt the inevitable. Isolate odd moments from the masses.
Maybe holidays and endings and airplanes really do distort time, exert their own gravity. Einstein in action. Physics 101. Relativity, for reals. How else to explain the vast chasm that's opened up between now and two weeks ago?
(Well, besides serious sleep deprivation. And the fact that I never took Physics. And the reality that today's the first day since before Thanksgiving that all three kids are in school. Before Thanksgiving. On the same day. Yup. That would do it.)
It was such a good trip.
Even if it's all ancient history.
What I do remember, what I can tell you, with absolute certainty, is this: that we swallowed whole the pewter skies. Inhaled the briny winds. Drank up the moss-air. Filled our eyes and minds and hearts with the one thousand greens that blanket the Northwest.
The place is like an old black and white print, all one color, endless variations. (Much like space-time, I consider green-brown one big color, on the continuum.) I once read that professional artists possess more greens than every other color, combined. Because green is so abundant, and vast. Because nature's so nuanced, on the subject of green. I suspect the author hailed from the Northwest.
I didn't know, when it was my everyday, how vital it is for me, this green. How my heart seems to beat to the tempo of green. How, somehow, it became my soul food. Even the banal, bedhead-y sword ferns. Even the unkempt Douglas firs. Even the ragamuffin jade lichen. Especially the lichen. Especially the whole lot. I kept leaving the house, and looking up, and greeting all that irrepressible green with a small, silent happy dance. The lungs seem to grow a little larger, gulp deeper, in that chlorophyll-filled atmosphere. That damp-dank air is my oxygen. I am sated. And probably mildewed.
My soul's sated, anyway. My belly's another question.
My December diet's pretty much cookies, and I pretty much love it that way. It works out beautifully, make-sample-bake, and every year I resurrect the tradition. It naturally fades out, right after Christmas, when I plunder the produce aisles with abandon. Like clockwork, come Boxing Day, my appetite takes a fierce turn toward green. And I indulge. Mightily.
Except this year, we were traveling over Christmas, eating holiday meals well into the New Year. I don't regret a one of them, not the Dick's cheeseburger, nor the Larsen's Kringle, nor the excellent excess of Northwest cheeses.
But man, I sure did miss me my green.
And then, once we landed, that "first week back at school"? The week when that 50-pound suitcase sat open, erupted, in the middle of our living room? That week when I went mano-a-mano with the epic dust bunnies that had colonized our corners, whilst away? (I tried vacuuming them. No go. Even the Dyson balked. We're talking Ice Age epic.) The week with two snow days? And kids sick the other three? Vegetables happened. But only just barely.
I was famished.
Hungry, I knew. Famished, I didn't realize until I was flipping through a baking book, late last week, perusing, as I often do, and hit this wall where I couldn't flip further.
I stood staring at the same flour-and-sugar whatever for a good five-minutes, before I realized I was whooped. Burned out. So done with the sweets.
I am told some people resolve to "eat healthy", whatever that means, in the New Year. Not so much me. I've belatedly learned to love resolutions; it's just that mine aren't so halo-shiny. (Excerpts from 2015 Resolutions: Watch more TV. Play more games. Knit a Maude. Sleep lots. You get the drift.) I couldn't define it, let alone do it.
Which is why, when I realized my baking malaise, and just as quickly, the anecdote (Shelve the bakers! Bring on the cooks!), I pored over Italian and Indian and Spanish and Japanese cookbooks with a vengeance. Indiscriminitely. Hungrily. Excitedly. Absolutely everything sounded good. Dal! Minestrone! Salad! Beans! Old socks with ceasar dressing!!! Anything and everything not-sweet.
By evening's end, I had huge plans to cook every last kebab/stew/salad/tagine/savory I'd laid eyes on. And eat it all. Immediately.
Then, Wednesday morning, I woke up to this, compliments of David Tanis, and dropped all aforementioned intentions to whip up a pot, pretty much instantly.
Hello, green. Hello, savory. Hello, soup. Hello, happy.
This soup is similar, in principle, to our beloved 5-ingredient (salt and water included) potato leek. This one, though, has more leek, less potato, meaning more sweet, less stodge. There's a genius hit of fresh nutmeg, which is warming and subtle and absolutely brilliant. Also, and you probably didn't catch this, there's a bit of spinach. Blended right in. A 10-ounce bit, if you're Tanis. A 16-ounce bit, if you're me. Either way, a big enough bit that the whole thing goes silky and faintly mineralled and beautifully, beautifully spinach-sweet.
Beautiful, anyway, in the eye of this beholder. My kids' eyes saw different adjectives.
I made my first vat for lunch, on a day when Zoë was home sick. When she saw the bowl I set before her, she despaired. More than a little. I explained it was our old favorite potato-leek soup. But better! She was, as we say in polite company, "dubious".
The bowl was empty, ten minutes later.
When Henry came home from school, a few hours later, he immediately zoomed to the stove, to investigate. He's always game for hot soup as afterschool snack (LOVE that in a kid), and so peered eagerly into the pot. He is also the most expressive person I know. His face went from hope-filled to outright-devastated, faster than you can say "soup". Like I'd offended him.
Things went downhill from there, when Zoë "helpfully" explained, in the way of small siblings everywhere, that what he was scowling at was, in fact, his favorite potato soup, plus spinach! Out with offended. In with betrayed.
But then, bless her heart, she added, "But Henry! It only looks green! It tastes just like potato soup!" (Love THAT in a kid!) Whereupon he dared a small taste. Whereupon he proceeded to eat three bowls. Each topped with silvery sardines. And declared it just about the best thing ever.
(You could argue he was just freezing; fair. You could argue he was famished; likely. You can't argue the fact that, not three hours later, all warm and cozy and arguably barely hungry, he downed another three bowls for supper. Topped with smoked mackerel. To, you know, shake things up.)
Actions speak louder than words and all that, and I can't really top six bowls of action. I would only add, though, that the glory of this soup (in addition to being cheap, stupid-simple, rejuvenating, warming, comforting, and delicious), is in the wide band of toppings it welcomes. Henry's addition of smoked fish is grand, especially augmented by crisp sweet corn. A generous knob of cold butter, set atop the hot soup, is very nice also. As is a heap of ribboned chard, flash-fried in coconut oil and ginger. An Indian-style tarka would be wonderful: ghee, chili, coriander, cumin. Brown rice or quinoa plus toasted nuts: ditto. Bacon! Definitely.
But my favorite combination, the one you see here, is this: generous lashings of whole milk yogurt, toasted coconut flakes, and still more nutmeg. Crunchy, creamy, hot, cold, sweet, oxalic, easy, excellent. Hello, green. Hello, happy.
Swamp Soup (A Soup of Spinach, Leek + Nutmeg)
adapted from David Tanis, The New York Times
I used 4 immense leeks, a fat 1" across, with at least 10 edible inches of stalk. Use the 6 called for below if yours are more moderate in scale. Water is perfectly fine here, and my default, though of course you may enhance with stock, if desired. I love cream in soup, but here, prefer the distinct pop and wallop of drizzling it over, vs. stirring it in. Add cream wherever suits.
Finally, this soup will go from emerald to army green, in fairly short order. It tastes divine in both shades, but a heads-up. So it is with green soups.
4 Tbs. salted butter
6 medium leeks
2 tsp. kosher salt + freshly ground pepper
2 medium potatoes (8 oz.), peeled
16 oz. spinach (fresh or frozen)
8 cups water, chicken stock, or vegetable broth
1 1/2 tsp. nutmeg, freshly grated
1/2 cup cream (optional)
Prepare veg: Trim roots and stiff, dark green ends from leeks (leaving as much of the pale green as is tender). Slice leeks in half, lengthwise, then run under brisk water, fanning leek layers like magazine pages, to remove any reclusive sand. Once clean, slice leeks cross-wise into 1" chunks. Peel potatoes, and cut into 1/2" slices.
In a medium stock pot, melt butter over medium heat. Add leeks and salt, toss to coat with butter, and cook until wilted and transparent but not brown, stirring occasionally, 10 minutes. Add potatoes and water, bring to a strong simmer, then reduce heat to low. Simmer gently for 20 minutes, or until potatoes are tender (a knife pierces a thick potato piece easily). Add nutmeg and spinach (still frozen, if from the freezer; in batches, allowing to wilt in between, if using fresh), and allow soup to return to a burble, 2-3 minutes. Carefully, blend soup thoroughly, 2-3 minutes, until smooth and creamy. I do this with a stick blender, directly in the pot, my favorite method. Soup can also be blended in a stand blender, in three batches, with stem vent ajar, to prevent blow-outs. Return to pot (if appropriate), and taste; adjust seasoning, to suit. You will likely want more salt at this point, and if you're me, more nutmeg.
Choose toppings from the list below (or your pantry), embellish decadently, and enjoy.
This soup is all about the add-ons. Following are some combinations we've tried and loved, and others I can't wait to give a go:
**smoked trout + corn kernels
**toasted coconut flakes (unsweetened) + whole milk yogurt + additional nutmeg
**coconut cream + chopped salted almonds
**ginger + ground coriander + greens barely sizzled in coconut oil
**ghee + chili + coriander + cumin + ginger + cardamom
**knob of cold butter