Where Our Wild Things Are

That February was cold and clear, a month of little snow and many blue-sky days. The year was 2008; I was thirteen months sober. I had taken the last ferry on the last Friday in January from the mainland to the Island in an act of bravery or insanity or cruelty, depending on what story I tell myself now. 

Officially I needed a rest; unofficially I needed a month or two away from my husband — space and time and water between us. But there was nothing official or unofficial about the way I felt: sad, scared, and completely confused about who Susie was. Early sobriety had made one thing clear: I wasn’t who I thought I was. But who was I? 

The crossing was a bit rough that Friday night. The boat lumbered through the swells, rolling slowly from side to side while I holed up in my red Honda, packed to the gills with books and whatnots and a Raggedy Ann, crying my eyes out, wondering what I had done.

From the ferry landing in Vineyard Haven, I made my way to Oak Bluffs along dark roads I’d never driven to a rental I’d never seen, but for a small photo on the internet. I was to let myself in; there would be no key. Once there, inside the cozy cottage furnished with comfortable old furniture, I was relieved. I unpacked. I tucked myself into a strange bed up the loft stairs under the eaves, and wondered, now what? 

In the morning, I drove to Lambert’s Cove beach, where I’d once been taken by friends on a visit to Martha’s Vineyard years before. I remembered the name, and fumbled with my folding map to find it. There I found a sandy path strewn with pine needles leading up and over an impressive range of dunes and down to a pretty shoreline stretching this way and that, the sparkle of sunlight on the water forcing me to squint for focus. 

Without warning I began to cry again. There was nothing I could do but walk and walk, stooping for shells and rocks, tracing the trail of foam left behind by spent waves returning to wherever they came from. Water. Walking. Brilliant sunshine. I felt better.

The next day I ventured further “up” Island thanks to my crumpled map. I parked at the trailhead of Menemsha Hills Reservation and began walking through the woods. This was not the beach, nor was it familiar terrain. I was leery of this strange world of twisted trees, bare-limbed and wallpapered with lichen. It seemed as if they were in an active battle with the elements and that they might come alive to skirmish at any minute. 

I followed the path, at times a staircase of thick knobby tree roots, at times a black ribbon of dirt composted from ages of decay, uphill, left and right, right and left, finally taking a short spur to a clearing and a lookout, where Vineyard Sound lay blazing blue below me, the ellipses of the Elizabeth Islands punctuating the horizon.

Back on the path, I found myself descending through thicker, mossier, messier growth, over the occasional crumbling stone wall and certainly, I thought, on a journey to the bottom of the world. Or at least Middle Earth. The path got steeper and sandier and harder to navigate. When would I get to the end? How much further did I have to go? When would the water come back into view? This was scary. Very scary. Yet also very beautiful. And very quiet. I thought to turn back but I pushed on. At last, my reward was a rocky beach at the bottom of a rickety wooden staircase. If one wanted to be alone with oneself, this was, without doubt, the place to do it.

The walking went on like this for days, over wind-scraped dunes pricked with bayberry and beach plum, along rocky, sandy paths pocked by deer hooves and rabbit paws, into the deepest part of the thickest woods. I rubbed up against my fear, exposed my vulnerability, stripped down the layers of veneer that had built up between me and the natural world during too many years in an office, in the suburbs, in somebody else’s shoes. 

In the woods, where I feared the wild things were, I discovered that the fear was inside me all along. I felt self-conscious and uncomfortable at first, but it was almost as if a powerful spirit surrounded me when I was completely exposed to the wind and the sun and the whispers in the woods. It was like becoming a part of something bigger while becoming smaller at the same time, and feeling good about that. 

I am still walking, thirteen years later. Still on this Island. Still heading out every day during this pandemic to expose myself to the healing power of nature. It is a lifesaver.

AND YET only this week have I learned what might lie at the root of this drive to inhabit nature. A friend sent me this interview with British naturalist Michael McCarthy (author of The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy), who, in an effort to persuade us to find joy in the natural world, has written:  

 “The sudden passionate happiness which the natural world can occasionally trigger in us may well be the most serious business of all.” 

Among other illuminations, he cites an idea that comes from a field of study called evolutionary psychology which posits that we have a deep affinity for the wild held over from our ancient selves:    

“The core perception of evolutionary psychology is that the 50,000 generations that preceded us in the Pleistocene, which is the age of the Ice Ages, when we became what we are as part of the natural world — when we were wildlife, if you like — that those generations are more important for our psyches, even now, than the 500 generations of civilization which have followed the invention of farming about 12,000 years ago. So that there is a legacy deep within us, a legacy of instinct, a legacy of inherited feelings, which may lie very deep in the tissues — it may lie underneath all the parts of civilization which we are so familiar with on a daily basis, but it has not gone; that we might have left the natural world, most of us, but the natural world has not left us.” 

McCarthy goes on to suggest that, “the natural world is a part of us, and that if we lose it, we cannot be fully who we are.”


That’s a good place to stop and offer you further inspiration for finding joy (and perhaps a part of yourself) in nature:

Why I Wake Early: New Poems, Mary Oliver

A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems, Wendell Berry

Deep in the Green: An Exploration of Country Pleasures, Anne Raver

The Rural Life and More Scenes From the Rural Life, Verlyn Klinkenborg.


P.S. Thank you to all of you who continue to email and comment on the blog since the reboot! So nice to be reconnected. If you feel comfortable, I encourage you to post your thoughts in the comments section under this blog post, so that we can share conversations with each other. 

LOOKING FOR NEW RECIPES?

Visit cookthevineyard.com and sign up for the free weekly newsletter. (Something I do as part of my day job.)

I’ll Take an Order of Beauty and a Side of Color, Please. And a Better Night’s Sleep.

I am writing on four hours of sleep. I think I mentioned in passing that I was aiming to be honest with you, so let’s not waste any time. Here are three things not to do in the evening: Stay on your computer until 11:30 p.m. absorbing the screen’s blue light, which suppresses melatonin; eat a bowl of chocolate chips during this light show; and decide that climbing into bed and reading a riveting, gut-wrenching novel like Sadeqa Johnson’s Yellow Wife will lull you to sleep.

You might perhaps wind up like me, staying awake until 5 a.m. finishing said book.

I didn’t just stay awake; I also tip-toed downstairs to the comfy chair in the living room, where the dog was snoring on the couch and the Scotsman had turned the heat down to a level that would just barely keep pipes from freezing. At least I had a wool hat and a cheap throw. 

To improve on this situation, I then decided that drinking a cup of warm milk would be a good idea, because that’s what my grandmother Honey always did when she couldn’t sleep. But I couldn’t resist turning it into a big mug of hot cocoa (at least it was good quality cocoa!), which zeroed out any drowsy-making and put my bladder into overdrive as a bonus.  

Looking on the bright side, at least it wasn’t a nip of scotch, neat — a frequent trick during the Before Times that I used to treat sleep disturbance caused by too many evening drinks. Catch the irony there? A vicious circle.

The point is, even though I may be sane, sober, and well-intended these days, I’m still stupid. And stubborn. You?

I listened to a great podcast this week, The True Hard Work of Love and Relationships. On Being’s Krista Tippett interviewed Alain de Botton, the author of the widely read New York Times opinion piece, Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person. In it I was reminded, with relief, of the importance of realizing how imperfect we all are so that we don’t experience the chronic delusion that everyone else’s relationships are better than ours. And more importantly, so we don’t set up ridiculous expectations of our partners. We’re all crazy in some way; if we’re going to make a go of it, we’ve got to accept each other’s craziness, starting with our own. 

I bring it up because it never hurts to take a gentle look at the crazy stuff to see if it’s really working for you. And because lately I’ve been thinking that my stubbornness – or insistence on doing (or not doing) things a certain way – can sometimes actually limit my imagination (as well as affect my sleep!).

For instance, how is it that I managed to grow things outdoors for so many years, across three seasons every year, without realizing I could (more or less) recreate the experience indoors in the winter?

It took a pandemic and hibernation to snap my longing (and need) for year-round beauty into focus. In this most wintry of winters, I finally embraced the house plant. Or, more accurately, plants in the house. It started with a collection of scented geraniums I rescued from outdoors — peppermint, orange, lemon, rose — each plant with its own seductive fragrance and uniquely beautiful leaves. Some leaves as soft as bunny ears. But then I bought real houseplants, too. A fern. A jade plant. Ivy. Two fancy rosemary topiaries.

I swear I’ve done nothing more than crowd them all near southern windows and water them sporadically. And I’ve been wildly rewarded. In the breakfast room, we have a sea of soft green leaves blanketing one wall like a living mural. In the bedroom, a tabletop collection of greenery that lights up in the mid-morning sun, casting cartoon shadows on the dog basking on the carpet below. 

“Put yourself in the way of beauty,” Cheryl Strayed wrote. I have loved that ever since I read it in a little book of hers called Brave Enough. (You need that book!). But I never stopped to think about how beauty really works. What is the real reason that I love flowers and foliage so much?

Sure, nurturing plants fills a need and assuages anxieties (not inconsequential). But there’s more. It turns out there’s a connection between our vision and areas of the brain where pleasure thrives. Beauty, and its sidekick color, can actually stimulate serotonin production.

Ah ha! No wonder, for one who runs a wee bit under the optimal serotonin levels during the winter (lightbox: check, vitamin D: check, omega 3 fish oil: check), the pleasure of seeing green every morning is so rewarding. The color green supposedly reminds our brains of peaceful and pastoral settings. The color pink (my favorite) is relaxing, blue (the color of our walls) calming. And while I don’t normally lean into yellow, it’s the color of happiness — which may account for the very cheering effect of some bright yellow (and red) tulips that wandered into our house last weekend.

My suggestion? Get thee to a florist, please, and purchase a plant, some flowers, a flowering plant, or a planting flower. That’s the good kind of crazy.

Have a beauty-filled day.

P.S. Thank you to all of you who emailed me last week or commented on the blog after the reboot! So nice to be reconnected. If you feel comfortable, I want to encourage you to post your thoughts in the comments section below, so that we can share conversations with each other. 

Read last week’s post: Be the Light! Rebooting the Sixburnersue Blog

Looking for new recipes? Visit cookthevineyard.com and sign up for the free weekly newsletter. (Something I do as part of my day job.)

Be the Light! Rebooting the Sixburnersue Blog

You may be wondering why I picked now to reboot a blog that’s been dormant for a few years, and why there are no vegetable recipes or garden reports in your inbox.  The truth is, inaugural poet Amanda Gorman lit a fire under me with her poem, The Hill We Climb.

I was already headed toward reconnecting with you, what with this little pandemic and all. Since it began, I’ve found that writing is one of the best ways to quiet all the noise in my head. But I wanted to share more than recipes and garden tips with you.

And then I heard Amanda say these lines (many times, since I played the recording over and over again after the actual inauguration).

For there is always light,

if we’re brave enough to see it,

brave enough to be it.

Be the light! I love that idea, and I began to think about what it really meant to do that. To be kind, generous, supportive, positive, unselfish, enthusiastic, accepting, exemplary, visionary, honest, fair, passionate. A dozen people might come at it a dozen different ways.

But for me, I’ve been thinking it might mean sharing a little bit about how I find peace and serenity through creating — the cooking, the gardening, the flower arranging, the photographing, the meandering through the woods and over dunes. You see, I’ve been sober now for 14 years, long enough to be humbled by an impressive roster of missteps — and long enough to be honest with myself about what I need to get through the day (other than chocolate): Beauty, color, flavor, comfort, focus, activity, air, touch.

I’m also well-practiced at looking for light in the darkness. Believe me, Amanda is right; it takes courage. But looking for the light, then finding it, and finally, letting it radiate through you — that’s truth. And by truth I mean something possessed of much more energy than you might realize.

Years ago, reading a little book of essays called A Season for the Spirit by one Martin Smith, I learned that the original Greek word for truth is aletheia, which literally means “un-hiddenness.”

 “Truth is not a thing, it is rather an event. Truth happens to us when the coverings of illusion are stripped away and what is real emerges into the open,” Martin wrote.

Think about that! Truth is the act of revealing ourselves — of actually being our real selves — and in turn becoming that bright light in the darkness. It’s hard — getting there, I mean. Annie Dillard wrote, “You do not have to sit outside in the dark. If however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is necessary.”

But remember this, too: Darkness is a great place to visit, but don’t pack a suitcase – overnight stays are not advised. (That’s me channeling my favorite sober funny person-writer, Anne Lamott, who would totally say that.)

Come along with me into the light. I promise nerdy quotes, real-life stories (triumphs and debacles both), pretty photos (a LOT of flowers), book recs, music, kitchen wisdom, garden wisdom, and wisdom-wisdom. (That’s the stuff gathered from the universe of wise people — not me. I should come with a warning label.)

If you’d rather sit this one out, I totally understand and will not stick pins in a voodoo doll if I see your name fall off the subscriber list. (Though just thinking about that might keep you on.)

And by all means, to get your recipe fix, you should visit cookthevineyard.com and sign up for the free weekly newsletter. (Something I do as part of my day job.)

Here’s my reading suggestion for the week, an oldie but goodie: Ann Lamott’s Traveling Mercies.

Yes, the cosmos are from last summer, but they’re cheery, don’t you think? And pink. I plan to grow a couple dozen varieties this year, because, well, overdoing things is how I roll.


And here’s some feel-good music, just because I love these guys.

Cook the Vineyard With Me — And Martha’s Vineyard Magazine’s New Website

        What’s in season. Where to find it. How to cook it.


Recipes follow me around. As do vegetables. And chocolate. And kitchen tools. I can’t get away from them. I admit, I’m not trying too hard.

Despite taking a break from cookbook writing after Simple Green Suppers came out in 2017, I’ve still been writing about food on Martha’s Vineyard for both the Vineyard Gazette and Martha’s Vineyard magazine (both owned by the Vineyard Gazette Media Group, where I am thankfully employed.) I’m also still contributing to Fine Cooking magazine. My guide to grilling vegetables is in the June/July issue.

So when Martha’s Vineyard magazine asked me to participate in the launch of a new cooking website and newsletter, I couldn’t say no. Didn’t want to say no. In fact, I said I thought it was a great idea! Yikes.

Well, it is a great idea — one that actually is going to come to life very soon. CooktheVineyard.com will be an online guide to cooking and eating deliciously at home, with an emphasis on finding and cooking fresh, seasonal ingredients. Of course that means recipes, and stories, and resources. And it will include a section on dining out, with regular features on chefs, restaurants and local food businesses and artisans.

But Cook the Vineyard will also be a free weekly newsletter, written by yours truly, with lots of recipes and ideas for what to cook every week, from weeknight suppers to entertaining menus.

You can read more about Cook the Vineyard, which will be sponsored by LeRoux at Home, The Net Result, and Cronig’s Market, in this article in this week’s Vineyard Gazette.

Then I hope you’ll sign up for the newsletter, which will be delivered to your inbox every Wednesday, starting July 3.

And follow us on Instagram, too @cookthevineyard. 

And perhaps you’ll forgive me for dropping the ball on sixburnersue and help me pick up the slack over at cookthevineyard.com.

Happy summer and happy cooking.

 

 

 

Writing My Way Out of a Paper Bag

Well, well, well. When I took a full-time job last spring, I didn’t really think I would stop writing my blog altogether, but what did I know? Turns out my new job at the Vineyard Gazette Media Group keeps me pretty busy, especially in the writing department. A few months into the job and I was feeling very grateful to my high school English teachers, who gave me a voice, the 5-paragraph essay, and the concept that all hypotheses should be supported with documented facts! What I learned from my college English professors was a bit more vague, partly because I was writing poetry and fiction, but also because I may not have been paying attention 100 percent of the time.

At any rate, my job is great because I get to flex all kinds of writing and editing muscles. Though I’m no reporter, I’ve wound up with a regular column in the newspaper called Off the Menu. This summer I interviewed and profiled chefs across the Island; two of my favorites were this one on the Artcliff’s Gina Stanley and this one on Ben DeForest of the Red Cat. For the winter, I’m writing a looser column, sometimes about a particular ingredient, with a recipe; sometimes about a local food event. I also write features for the magazine (Martha’s Vineyard Magazine); in the issue on newstands now is my piece on the Larder and Jefferson Munroe.

I edit a publication called the Vine, which is a color adjunct to the paper that comes out seven times a year and focuses on people and businesses in the Vineyard community who make it a special place to live. In addition to assigning and editing that content, I write at least one of the features in each issue, too. My favorite so far was this one on 800-square foot dwellings. (I take some of the photos in the Vine too, but the best part of working on this publication is collaborating with talented and energetic photographer Jeanna Petersen Shepard, who took the photo above.) I also write a weekly events newsletter called Island Time (please subscribe!).

I’m also helping my fabulous boss, Jane Seagrave, publisher of the Vineyard Gazette Media Group, with new product development and with some updates to a tourist website called MVOL.com which the company purchased earlier this year.

As far as freelance writing goes, I still contribute the occasional feature to Fine Cooking magazine, like this piece on tomato bread salads from this summer.

And Simple Green Suppers is happily sailing along. Most recently, Outside magazine chose it as one of its best cookbooks for busy adventurers. And the West Elm design blog chose it as one of its ten cookbooks to help you through the busy season. Best of all Simple Green Suppers and my friend Sarah Waldman’s Feeding a Family (both published by the most wonderful Roost Publications) were chosen by the American Booksellers Association to be highlighted in The Indie Next Holiday Gift Guide flier. Half a million copies of the flier were printed and sent out to 11,000 independent bookstores. (And only a handful of cookbooks are on this flier.) Please, please, please, if you are going to buy books for presents this year, support your local independent bookstore.

This week I’m heading to an event at Metro Bis restaurant in Simsbury, Connecticut, where chef Chris Prosperi (who I first met on the radio when I was a guest on Faith Middleton’s The Food Schmooze, which Chris appears on regularly) will cook a five-course menu highlighting recipes from Simple Green Suppers.

My little farmstand puttered along this summer. I did realize with the new job that there was only so much effort I could put into the garden this year, but it gave me the whole summer to get used to the idea that at least for now, the market gardening chapter of my life must close. I have no doubt it will reopen some day, but in the pursuit of keeping a roof over my head and some kibble in Farmer’s bowl, I have to focus on work that returns a little bit more money per hour than the market garden does.

And speaking of roofs, I have a new one to call my own—only it is not on Martha’s Vineyard, where the real estate market left me behind while I was dilly-dallying. But it is all good; I bought a little affordable house in Delaware where my father’s family is from and where I spent summers growing up, and for now my parents will live in it, as it provides them with a one-floor living situation where my Dad can more easily care for my Mom, who is frail. All of my various book collections, kitchen tools, watercolors, photographs, pottery, garden gear—all of the stuff that distinctly defines me as a non-minimalist—now has a home to call its own, and I can stop dragging it around awkwardly from rental to rental, always losing something along the way. Farmer and I will go visit our stuff and my parents every few months, and in the meantime we have moved to a lovely winter rental here on the Vineyard (summer could be interesting; I think Farmer would be okay with tent living?!) and will continue to be optimistic about the possibility of living and working here on my beloved Island for as long as we can.

I truly am grateful for this gift of writing , a skill I was taught 40 years ago that I can still use to market myself today, and hopefully for many years to come. I like to say I can write myself out of a paper bag if I have to. That isn’t a very pretty image, but the point is that it’s a skill, not a talent, and a very useful and versatile one at that.

 

 

A New Job, With Gratitude

I have a lovely bit of good news I’ve been meaning to share with you. You might not think it is the most fun or exciting thing, because it involves work. But for me, it is a game changer.

I have a new job. A full-time office job. For the first time in nine years.

Perhaps you got the slightest hint, during those nine years (many of which I was writing this blog), that self-employment was, well, exhausting. And financially…challenging.

It also was amazing and wonderful and the best decision I’ve ever made in my life (up until now!), because I took a risk—a lot of risks really—and the rewards were huge. I got to pursue a dream (that I didn’t really even know I had) of being a farmer, I got to write books, I got to manage my own schedule, I got to burrow into my new community. All while living on this Island, which has turned out to be the biggest reward of all.

 

For better or worse, I am now ridiculously attached to this place, in a visceral way. Mostly it has to do with the immediacy of nature; once you step out your door you are in it completely. The other-worldly curtain of grey fog on an emerald field, the mirage of sparkly ocean that glistens just around the bend, the clear black night sky hole-punched with infinitely luminous patterns of starlight.

That kind of attachment makes it hard to leave a place, even when you know it is time to realign with the real world.

Which is why I am so grateful to have my new job as an editor at the Vineyard Gazette Media Group, publishers of the 170-year-old award-winning Vineyard Gazette newspaper and Martha’s Vineyard magazine (where I have contributed food pieces for many years). As special projects editor, I’ve got a bunch of creative editing and writing challenges to work on, starting with editing a publication called the Vine which began as a supplement to the paper and now stands alone as something closer to a magazine. With my long career (pre freelance!) in magazine editing, it’s a good fit.

 

There are so many wonderful things about my new job, starting with my smart and friendly coworkers and my fantastic boss, but I thought for now I’d just show you some pictures of the office,  an  historic house which was added on to over the years (the newspaper presses are on the first floor), and of the neighborhood. It is pretty cool. (Top photo is the front of the office; the next photo is the side/back entrance; the  photo directly above is the view of the harbor at the end of the street; the middle photo is the plaque next to the front door of the office.)

As much as I love the rural end of the Island where I live, coming to work in the picturesque New England village of Edgartown is kind of a kick. (Or at least it has been this spring; I’m sure my attitude will change with summer traffic!) It certainly beats other office buildings I’ve inhabited.

To add to the fun, my office space is actually the archive room, so I am surrounded by bound copies of old newspapers, old books, and a treasure trove filing cabinet of newspaper clippings organized alphabetically by last name (Belushi, Clinton, Kennedy, along with Luce, Mayhew, Silva, etc.). (I also have a nice view out my window!)

You are  probably wondering, and the answer is no.

No, I am not giving up on my vegetable growing operation completely (and certainly not on cooking)—I’m far too stubborn for that. I have had a stern talk with myself though about making the farmette a much lower priority for this year. But since I built a lot of infrastructure here last year, it only makes sense to use it. So I am planting mostly tomatoes, flowers and beans, and will harvest and open the farm stand Friday-Sunday. I hope that will work out. I did say I was going to wear less hats, but I am a slow learner.

On instagram I use these hashtags: #sixburnersuecooks #sixburnersuegrows #sixburnersuewrites. We’ll just have to add a fourth one: #sixburnersuehasarealjob

And We’re Off! Simple Green Suppers is Live!



Just a quick update to let you know that Simple Green Suppers is off and running. We had a really awesome launch party at Morrice Florist. And we’re getting some great buzz! This week I’m guest-hosting the Instagram feed of my publisher @Roostbooks so please follow along to ogle some of @randibairdphoto‘s amazing photos. You’ll even get a glimpse at some great photos (like the one above of Little Gem and baby red Romaine lettuce, and the one of cherry tomatoes below) that didn’t make it into the book. (We took a ton of photos.) And while you’re at it, be sure to follow my Instagram feed @sixburnersue. If you’ve gotten the book and are enjoying it already, we’d really appreciate a 5-star (!) review on Amazon!

Just published this week–a great feature in Martha’s Vineyard Magazine (photo below) highlighting some of the recipes from the Toast chapter (with my, ahem, opinionated viewpoint on the best way to make toast!). And a feature blog on MindBodyGreen using leftovers from the Baby Potato, Greens, and Chickpea Hash in dishes throughout the week.

I’ve been doing some radio interviews and tomorrow I’ll return to my favorite–The Food Schmooze with Faith Middleton on WNPR.  Back in my Fine Cooking days, I used to ride up to New Haven every few weeks to be on the show with Faith and Chris Prosperi, and it was so much fun. 

In just a few weeks, I’ll be at the Grand Tasting at the Martha’s Vineyard Wine Festival (Saturday, May 13), so if you happen to be going, stop by my table! And I promise I’ll let you know about other events and news coming soon. (Garden is getting going too.)

In the meantime, I leave you this teaser from today’s Instagram activity. Quick Roasted Beet, Arugula, and Wheatberry Salad with Strawberry-Balsamic Dressing. (That would be on page 40 in the book!)

All photos here by Randi Baird Photography.

A Stack of Books, a Double-Launch Party, and Five Island Women

Yes, okay, I admit it, I am getting a little kick out of this pile of books on my desk. Those copies of Simple Green Suppers are “author” copies to give to all the many people who contributed to the creation of the book.

But I am just going to stare at them for a while.

I have them stacked up that way so that I can see the beautiful spine that the talented book designer, Toni Tajima, created. And also, of course, just to remind myself that somehow I’ve managed to write (and deliver to my publishers) four books over these last nine years. I never would have predicted that when I left my job as editor of Fine Cooking magazine in January of 2008.

Heading into my tenth year of living on the Vineyard—and the publication on April 11 of that fourth book—I am feeling ridiculously nostalgic and grateful for this supportive, energetic, talented, and yes, tight-knit community I live in.

Take, for example, this launch party we’re having next Sunday afternoon, April 9.

First off, you have to know that my editor at Roost Books (in Boulder, Colorado; they are an imprint of Shambhala Publications), grew up on the Vineyard. Her name is Jennifer Urban-Brown. As it happens, Jenn offered me a contract for my fourth book not long after she offered another Island author, Sarah Moriarity Waldman, a contract for her second book. (Sarah’s first book, Little Bites, was with Roost, too.) Then as it happens, both Sarah and I chose (with Roost’s approval) to work with talented photographers, Elizabeth Cecil (Sarah) and Randi Baird (me), who are based on Martha’s Vineyard, but work and publish nationally as well.

Then, the folks back at Roost Books decided that they would publish both Sarah’s book, Feeding a Family, and my book, Simple Green Suppers, on the same day. This seemed like a fun and exciting way to double publicity efforts, though I doubt this would happen in another place. As it happens, Sarah and I have become friends, and though she is younger than I am, we also share many mutual friends in the food and farming community on Martha’s Vineyard. (Just so you know, we have a year-round population of 18,000, and yes, there are days, like yesterday, when the ferries stop running, and we are marooned. Winter is long. Friends are key.)

One of those friends is another published author, editor, and radio host who happens to be the first (well, second) person I ever met on this island. Her name is Ali Berlow. Ali was the founding Executive Director of Island Grown Initiative, a non-profit supporting local farmers, (Randi Baird is a long-time board member and director as well) and founder of Edible Vineyard. And she is the author most recently of The Food Activist Handbook and is working on a new radio podcast, The Gleaning.

When Roost suggested that Sarah and I do a panel discussion for our party, we both agreed that Ali was the perfect person to moderate. We asked her, and she said yes. We agreed that the panel should include Randi and Elizabeth so that we could all answer questions about the process of making a cookbook. So there we had our quintet of Island women in food and publishing. (Yay.) (Left to right: Sarah, Elizabeth, Ali, Susie, Randi.)

Two weeks ago, with the event mostly planned, we learned we would need to change locations, as our bookstore, Bunch of Grapes, was going to be moving (only down the street, fortunately.) So we began to quickly look around for another space—the Ag Hall, the libraries, a theatre. Then we thought of a special place that happens to be owned by none other than our editor Jenn’s sister. (I told you the Island was small—forget six degrees of separation, it’s more like two.) Emily Coulter is the owner of the most enchanting floral shop you could imagine—Morrice Florist.

 And Morrice Florist also has a big solarium space—big enough to fit a crowd. Emily was happy to accommodate us, and Roost has ordered up chairs and refreshments.

Now all Sarah and I have to do is make several dozen nibbles from our books, and arrive on Sunday ready to talk and sign. Randi and Elizabeth will be there, of course, as will many friends and artists in the community who worked directly or indirectly on our photo shoots or on recipe testing. Bunch of Grapes will be there selling stacks of books. And I will probably get a lump in my front and tears in my eyes when I see all the other friends spilling through the doors, friends who’ve made living on this Island, for me, a much bigger deal than a stack of books—no matter how alluring they are.

 

 

A Few Small (and Big) Ways to Use Miso In Recipes

 

When I tiptoed over the mostly-vegetable line into the all-vegetarian world, I finally got friendly with miso. So when I wrote Simple Green Suppers, I took advantage of miso’s deep flavors in several different ways. Probably my favorite recipe is a simple Lemon Miso Butter (great on sautéed vegetables or in grain dishes), but I also use miso in a delicious Crystallized Ginger-Miso Dressing (on an asparagus and grapefruit salad, and more), and in soups and broths, including the wonderful Spring Miso Broth with Stir-Fried Asparagus, Romaine, Scallions, Tofu, and Mint recipe pictured above.

If you’re not friendly with miso yet, here’s a little background: Miso is a nutritious fermented bean paste, and making it is an ancient Japanese craft. Usually, fermentation begins with soybeans, salt, and koji (a fermenting fungus); sometimes grains or legumes like barley, rice, or chickpeas are added. The miso is aged for varying lengths of time; generally older misos will have more umami flavor and the saltiness will have mellowed somewhat.

The color of miso will tell you something, too. Generally, the lighter colored misos are the mildest (and most versatile). I use white (sometimes labeled yellow) shiro miso most often, especially for dressings and sauces (top right in photo below). But I also like the darker misos—in broths and soups especially. Great miso is now made in the U.S. In fact, my favorite miso is made right here in Massachusetts, by the South River Miso Company in Conway. I especially like their one-year azuki bean miso (bottom right below) and their three-year barley miso (middle bowl, below), but all of their varieties are delicious and worth seeking out.

However, you don’t have to go out of your way to find miso. Most major supermarkets and all natural food stores carry at least a small variety of misos. All misos have an alluring sweet-salty-funky flavor that’s hard to beat for flavor-boosting.

It’s fun to try out a range of misos; just know that you may need to use a little less of a darker miso or add a little more water (or other ingredients) to taste. A good starting point for soup is one tablespoon per cup of water. If you like, you can strain your broth if using a chunky artisan miso. Keep in mind that all miso pastes destined for soups should be dissolved in hot water, but never boiled. Boiling can destroy flavor and nutrients.

So now, time for you to get friendly with miso, too—though maybe you already are! Either way, I think you’ll enjoy these two recipes. (And you’ll have to get a copy of Simple Green Suppers for the soup recipe above. I know, what a tease. But just a friendly reminder if you haven’t pre-ordered the book–well, you could certainly do it now.)

Lemon-Miso Butter

Make this handy flavor-booster ahead; cover and keep in the fridge for up to a week. In Simple Green Suppers, I use this butter in a recipe for Stir-Fried Black Rice with Baby Bok Choy and Asparagus, and in a recipe for Parsnips and Creminis with Wheat Berries. But you can use it on any stir-fried or sautéed veggies or with rice; be sure to add the butter to the recipe while the veggies or grains are still hot. Double this recipe if you like. (If you need to soften butter quickly to make this, cut it into a few pieces and microwave for a few seconds, but don’t melt it.)

Makes ¼ cup

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

2 tablespoons white (Shiro) miso

1 teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest

In a small bowl, combine the butter, the miso paste, and the lemon zest. Use a small silicone spatula or wooden spoon to mash together until well combined.

Recipe copyright Susie Middleton, from Simple Green Suppers: A Fresh Strategy for One-Dish Vegetarian Meals (Roost Books).

Crystallized Ginger-Miso Dressing

I have to admit this dressing is one of my favorite recipes. It features crystallized ginger with assists from lime, maple, and miso. I love it on an Asparagus, Grapefruit, and Sushi Rice recipe in Simple Green Suppers, but it is equally good with broccoli, green beans, cabbage, or lettuce. Double or triple if you like.

Yields about 1/3 cup

1 tablespoon rice vinegar

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon fresh lime juice

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon minced crystallized ginger

1 tablespoon maple syrup

1 tablespoon minced cilantro

1½ teaspoons white (Shiro) miso

In a small bowl, combine the rice vinegar, the lime juice, the crystallized ginger, the maple syrup, the cilantro, and the miso. Whisk well.

Recipe copyright Susie Middleton, from Simple Green Suppers: A Fresh Strategy for One-Dish Vegetarian Meals (Roost Books).

Top Photo by Randi Baird, Randi Baird Photography

 

 

Chickpeas, Meet Smashed Potatoes

I’m not done with you yet, chickpeas! (Sorry folks, next week we’ll move on to miso and ginger and butter and some quick little sauces!) In my last blog, I talked about how versatile chickpeas are, because you can actually sauté or roast them—and turn up their flavor at the same time by browning. I included an Indian Curry recipe from the new book. But with Simple Green Suppers now just four weeks away from bookstores (Yippee! And I may have the first copy in my hands within days!), I thought I’d give you one more teaser recipe with chickpeas, which also happens to make use of, yes, smashed potatoes.

Those of you who’ve been following me since Fine Cooking days will realize that I just can’t leave these little crispy flattened red potatoes alone. Ever since I first developed the recipe more than 10 years ago (and here it is on FineCooking.com), I’ve been re-imagining them as components of other dishes. In Simple Green Suppers, I’ve included them in a simple and delicious hash with greens, chickpeas, and, of course, garlic. And they don’t even have to go in the oven; in this dish, instead of roasting, the boiled potatoes get smashed and sautéed. A lot of yummy things happen in this sauté pan!

But honestly, I also wanted to run this recipe because I love the photo (by my very talented co-conspirator, photographer Randi Baird) that runs with it. Stand by for a lot more amazing photos, great strategy, and delicious recipes in Simple Green Suppers: A Fresh Strategy For One-Dish Vegetarian Meals.

And if you live on Martha’s Vineyard, save this date: Sunday, April 9, 4 pm. Official book launch party at Bunch of Grapes bookstore—yay!

Baby Potato, Greens, Garlic and Chickpea Hash

A simple, comforting supper with just a few ingredients, this was inspired by a freshly dug batch of Red Gold potatoes from the garden. Nutty-tasting yellow-fleshed Red Golds are delicious, but of course not required in this recipe—any baby potato will do! The potatoes get boiled first, then crushed and sautéed with the other ingredients for a delicious crispy finish. I also love that this recipe showcases another tasty way to use chickpeas as a protein—in a rustic “hash.” Sautéing the chickpeas until golden is the trick to giving them extra flavor. It even works with canned, drained chickpeas. Choose your favorite tender greens for this, and be generous with the garlic, too.

Serves 2

10 baby red potatoes (preferably yellow-fleshed), about 10 ounces

Kosher salt

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

1  1/3 cups cooked chickpeas (well-drained if canned)

1 (generous) tablespoon minced fresh garlic

3 cups chopped or sliced stemmed tender greens (such as Swiss chard, spinach, broccoli greens, or young kale)

Fresh black pepper

Hot sauce or vinegar

1/4 cup sour cream

Chopped fresh chives

 

Put the potatoes and 2 teaspoons salt in a large saucepan and cover with a generous amount of water. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook until just tender, about 25 minutes. Drain the potatoes.

Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a large (12-inch) nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the chickpeas and cook, shaking or stirring, until golden brown, about 5 to 7 minutes. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the greens and ¼ teaspoon salt and cook, tossing or stirring, until wilted, 1 to 2 minutes. Move the greens and chickpeas to one side of the pan and add the remaining tablespoon of butter. Let it melt and add the boiled potatoes. Using a potato masher or spatula, crush the potatoes into large pieces (you don’t want to mash them completely, just break them up) and sprinkle them with 1/2 teaspoon salt and several grinds of black pepper. Turn the heat to medium high and stir everything together. Press down on the mixture with a spatula and cook until the bottom is somewhat browned, 3 to 5 minutes. Flip the hash over in pieces and cook again until the other side is somewhat brown, 2 to 3 minutes.

Remove the hash from the pan and taste for seasoning. Add more salt and pepper and a splash or two of hot sauce or vinegar. (Or serve with a bottle of hot sauce alongside.) Serve right away, garnished with the sour cream and chives.

Copyright Susie Middleton, 2017. From Simple Green Suppers (Roost Books). Photo by Randi Baird.

 

 

Vegetables, flowers, and serenity with Susie Middleton