Blogging for Books Reveiw: A Modern Way to Cook

A Modern Way to Cook by Anna Jones was a random pick for me. The cover looked clean and bright, I loved the lowercase title, and I needed a new cookbook, so it seemed like an easy choice.

Once it arrived, I'll be honest: I looked through a few pages, felt underwhelmed, and put it upstairs with all our other books. It sat like this for a month, but when I wanted a simple, wholesome breakfast to serve my sister-in-law who was visiting from out of town, I grabbed A Modern Way to Cook and curled up on the couch, ready to re-commit. 

I flipped to the "Super-Fast Breakfasts" section, and was immediately pulled in. The overnight oats were an easy choice for serving the next morning, and the concept behind that two-page spread is what kept me reading for the next three hours. A Modern Way to Cook has several spreads within each major section that give multiple ideas for a single category of food. For example, instead of offering a single, overnight oats recipe, Jones writes a "master recipe," if you will, and then has a table of various mix-ins, toppings, or bases that then provide you several options for within the same structure. This translates well for eating seasonally, as well as allowing the reader/cook a creative outlet for experimentation and substitution. 

Another asset of this cookbook is the non-committal nature of it. Want to spend 20 minutes in the kitchen? Great. Jones has an entire index of recipes to choose from. Feeling adventurous or unhurried? She has a section titled "Investment Cooking" that might require a few extra ingredients or a more complex technique. In doing this, Jones has produced a book that invites novice cooks to challenge themselves without feeling intimidated, and experienced cooks to simplify without sacrificing quality, taste, or eloquence. 

I would classify myself as an intermediate home-cook, and aside from the overnight oats, I made the "Black-eyed peas with chard and green herb smash" (pg. 86 under the "Ready in Twenty" section) as well as the "Celery root, bay leaf, and mushroom ragu" (pg.178 in "Forty Minute Feasts). The green herb smash was the perfect bright and sharp addition to the warmth of the spiced tomatoes and beans, and I've wanted to add it on top of everything...fried eggs, toast, name it. I am a sucker for herbs. The celery root ragu was, unfortunately, not my favorite. I think that's more reflective of my pallet than of Jones' recipe, but I did not love it.   

Overall, I appreciate Jones' effortless yet intentional approach to cooking. Her recipe-writing is hands-down the most efficient, logical, and streamlined of any cooks I have read. I also appreciate her notes in the introduction about finding a way of eating and cooking that work best for YOU. In light of fads, trends, lifestyle diets, and so forth, Jones challenges the cook to "stop looking at food in its respective parts...and get back to the whole picture, the whole food" (pg. 15). Her line "You can worry about matcha and chia seeds later" in an earlier paragraph was met with a smile by me and a sense of freedom; her recipes are an invitation, not a prescription. 

For me, this book serves as more a resource and reference than a back-pocket guide, and on those days when I simply need ideas or inspiration, I know A Modern Way to Cook will not disappoint. 

*Disclaimer: This was a complimentary book given to me by the Blogging for Books program, and in exchange I offered this review. All thoughts, opinions, and words are my own. 

mid-day musings

I’m listening to the new Bon Iver album for what is, honestly, probably the hundredth time this week.

Today’s weather is perfect. The sun is out but without threats to burn or cause a sweat. The breeze is faint but cool, and from upstairs I can hear the blinds being sucked into the open screen every so often. I’m content here, sipping hot tea and nibbling a leftover slice of homemade cake. 

As the days continue, I am getting more and more comfortable with my time at home, and rarely feel without purpose. Things are getting done, relationships are being tended to, and life is being designed.

The strangest part, really, is how different one week is from the next. I have a planner that I use daily and love love LOVE, but as much as I try to anticipate what next Thursday will be, the picture is rarely complete.

Lunch dates come up. Or opportunities for new experiences. Or the shelves above the dining room table *need* rearranging, and also, the two things I couldn’t cross off my to-do list on Monday are still there on Thursday and are mocking me and I’m over them so I’m procrastinating.

Stuff like that.

None of it is bad, but again, it's different. I’m a woman of routine and expectations and plans, and my biggest lesson in the last few months has been remembering that just because this Wednesday didn’t look anything like last Wednesday doesn’t mean I have done something wrong or off-script or unproductive.

My days are simply more elastic now. They are moldable and adaptable and won’t always resemble each other, and that’s okay. The beauty is that time is my friend, and I can choose how to organize those minutes and hours into moments that give life and bring joy. This is a privilege; it is freeing but brimming with responsibility, and I hope to remember that.

This morning I re-joined the yoga studio I was apart of when I first moved to Pasadena, and I am SO excited. Yoga is the only fitness-related-activity that I have ever claimed loving, and have ever done consistently, and being back on that mat is a homecoming I couldn’t have dreamed of. When I bend to touch my toes, my hamstrings feel the effects of their earlier reawakening, a welcome reminder of the work they did.

I’m also starting a small, book-editing project, and am elated. It can be overwhelming at first, and many doubts say hiiiiiiiiiii, I’m heeeeeere tooooooooo, but really, I know I’m going to do a good job with the knowledge and experience I do have, and I am eternally grateful to be given a chance at all. Writing is my jam, but editing is my jam too.

Bon Iver has sung his 10 songs twice through now, and I’m ready for the next thing. I'm happy to have been here, and hope it won’t be as long until I’m back again.

three year nanniversary

Three years ago, I got dropped off in front a student housing building.

The truck that I had driven throughout high school, and had now moved me to Pasadena, CA, broke down on the 605 within 5 days of being an Angeleno, so I needed a ride.

I used my key-card to enter the building, and once inside the elevator, pushed the desired level: 3.

A smell from the hallway lingered in my nose as I moved through stories 1 and 2—a mix between stale children’s clothing, played in the day before and still sitting on the floor 24 hours later, and dinner cooking from nearby apartments. When I visit now, that smell hits me square in the face; I remember it so clearly, and it brings me right back.

The elevator opens and I tell myself this is going to be great! I can do this. it’s just an introductory day, I won’t be alone, I’ll have help.

Although my thoughts have a grasp on themselves, my heart-rate is a different story. I’m nervous, and my body knows it. Everything has been so new in the last week, and here I am, starting a job with a family I don’t know, doing something I haven’t technically done before: nannying a 5-month-old baby.

I knock gently, and through the door I immediately hear what later would become a normal and endearing greeting, “Ayden! Who’s heeeeere!"

Ashley opens the door, and I’m welcomed into their small but inviting 2-bedroom apartment. Ayden sits in her high-chair, wearing nothing but a diaper, and her big, brown eyes look at me curiously. To think about a time where I didn’t know what it was like to see those eyes looking into mine seems crazy now.

Ayden is just finishing lunch, a mix of rice cereal and breast milk, and is almost ready for her mid-day nap. Ashley is good about providing context and narrating where we are at in the day. I mostly pay attention and observe.

We all go into Ayden’s room to get her ready for nap-time. I’m walked through diaper-changes, the bedtime routine, and how this whole experience, generally speaking, should go. I listen to the song Ashely plays on her phone for Ayden, and it’s one I would also play throughout that first year. I remember the lyrics, the countless times we sung them, the countless times Ayden cried throughout the duration of it because she knew it wasn’t playtime anymore. Ashley pulls out the book they read before each nap, and I settle on the floor in the front of the rocking chair, absorbing all I can.

She starts, “Little Nutbrown Hare, who was going to bed, held on tight to Big Nutbrown Hare’s verrrrry long ears."

I watch as Ayden sits in Ashley’s lap, mostly staying still but every so often grabbing one of the pages, and feel the attachment forming quickly. My heart-rate is steady, and at peace. I know this is going to work out. I know this is going to be good.

Ashley finishes the book, sweetly whispering I love you all the way to the moon…and back and closes its cover.

She says a simple prayer over Ayden, tells her goodnight, and sets her in the crib. Ayden does well, and we quietly exit.

The next couple hours, Ashley goes over the eat-wake-sleep schedule they have found success with for Ayden, and I take mental notes. We make lunch together, and prep dinner together—Ashley accidentally pours a full cup of oatmeal into the bean salad I’m making, and we laugh, a lot. I remember thinking how much I already liked her, and how comfortable I felt. I stayed and ate with them that night, so I could meet Ayden’s Dada, Emanuel, and so we could all get to know each other better.

Today, I’ve been a nanny for this family for 3 years. It blows my mind. I have watched Ayden grow up, and I have watched her sister Avery grow up, and I have experienced the insane joy that comes from being a primary caregiver. 

The Itzhakian’s took a big risk on me the night they uttered the words I so desperately wanted to hear: You’re hired!

I was sitting in a dimly lit car, and the three of us were Skyping my interview. (WHO SITS IN A CAR FOR THEIR JOB INTERVIEW, C’MON ALYSSA.) Seriously, though, they had no reason to trust me aside from my own claims and my references. I was 350 miles away and we had never met, and all they had was the promise that I’d be moving within the month if I got hired.

When I did, I called Mack immediately and shared the celebratory news: GUESS WHO’S MOVING TO PASADENAAAAAAAAAAAAA.

So on September 12, 2013, I drove from Lodi to Pasadena with my dad and a U-Haul trailer, and on September 19 I officially became Sa.

I was processing this with Ashley last week, and I told her how my experiences with the girls, and with their family overall, have shaped so much of who I am. She knows this already, as do I, but each time I stop to reflect, I am genuinely dumbfounded. A version of myself without the Sa part is unimaginable. I think about these relationships, each so unique yet completely synchronized, and I think about the all-bearing but slow-building nature of them.

Stepping into a family as their nanny means you step in the everyday of their lives. And it’s almost immediate, too. You step into the reality of dirty dishes and dirty diapers. You step into relational dynamics as parents reveal their personalities and process decisions in front of you and with you. You step into honest conversations and opportunities to share, and you realize that so much of this job is what you make it.

Both the Itzhakians and I wanted the same thing from my role as their nanny: a commitment to investing in the life of this family, rather than a temporary babysitting gig that would help move me to LA.

So here we are now, 3 years later. We’ve celebrated together and mourned together, over major things and minor things. We’ve worked together and problem-solved. We don’t fight, but we stay honest with each other. We’ve shared conversations over lego-building and baby-feeding and I wouldn’t have this life—this life as Sa, as #nannyforever—any other way. They are my family, and today I celebrate that enormous, beautiful blessing.

And just for fun, here's something I wrote in Decemeber 2013, after I had a few months of nannying under my belt (it's all truer than ever, too): 

More than anything else I'm doing, though, I love being a nanny. I love being apart of another family and I love being immersed in day-to-day life with them. It feels so purposeful and tangible and bigger-than-me, and those are "job-qualities" I find extremely important. I can't believe I get paid to hang out with a beautiful, growing, learning, baby girl. I can't believe I get paid to foster a relationship with her AND her parents. I can't believe I get paid to cook, to drink tea and eat kettle corn while Ayden naps, to simply go through life with each of them. They are so generous to me, and I just can't express my gratitude enough.

we sat down as strangers, but left as friends

Mid-sentence, the words Dear, God erupted. Oh! We’re praying now.

As quickly as he started, though, he stopped.

With my eyes shut, although admittedly flitting, I waited…and waited some more.

Wait. Are we praying? Did I hear that correctly? The music is pretty loud in he—

His voice starts again, this time breaking, as he quietly concludes the prayer:

“Thank you (pause) for our new friends. (final pause) We love you. Amen."

I look up at him, no more than a stranger two hours prior, and am somewhat dumbfounded at this mark of authenticity. It is seeping from his seat across the table and pooling at my feet, making me unable to resist its absorption even if I tried.

His wife proclaims her amen, and without missing a beat, names the moment for what it was, almost to make light of it without taking away its significance: “You got a little weepy!"

Immediately, I like them.

They are in their mid-60’s (maybe?) and comfortable in conversation. Before our food arrived and the prayer was uttered, they had already asked about Mack and myself, wondering what our interests were and if we are pursuing them. There was no lull in topics as words were exchanged, and not because someone was hogging the floor or just filling conversational space, but because the ease with which they shared, and asked, was so natural.

The husband is relatable and also incredibly compelling, which is probably why he has a knack for story-telling. He told stories of the homeless people he’s befriended on his daily walks, and how he and his wife have made their home available in different ways, at different times, for different reasons. It might be a shower for someone, or a back patio to sleep on for another. It might be help filling out paper work, with the hope of receiving available resources.

He talked about hospital trips with one man in particular, and the hours of waiting, and the looks they got as they did. He was open with the struggles he and his wife sometimes endure, like struggles of boundaries or comprehension, and I was struck by their unwavering compassion in the face of others’ hardships, while still maintaining a sound sense of reality and practicality.

His wife introduced herself to me seconds after church had ended, and by my first impression, I thought she would be the talker of the two.

“Do you go along with that guy up there?”
“I sure do!” I said, looking towards Mack.
“Great! Well, I go along with that guy back there, and we would like to take you both to lunch today, okay?"

Our pastor had just challenged the congregation to break bread with someone new in the following week, and she literally wasted no time. I was a little taken aback at first, but just as instantly, incredibly humbled by this woman who approached someone new with no other agenda than to eat together and learn about each other.

Once at lunch, it became clear that she held a quiet confidence and enjoyed hearing her husband share about their lives. She ate her Cobb salad in small bites, interjecting commentary where applicable. If asked a question directly, she answered clearly but succinctly, and held a modesty towards any accomplishments mentioned or attributes attained.

They were both that way, actually. Both ready and willing to share who they were and where they came from. Ready to welcome us, their guests, as one of their own. Ready to highlight why they did what they did, but with no air of superiority or pride.

It came up that I was a writer, and after hearing how colorful their lives had been, I half-jokingly, half-seriously remarked how I should write about them.

They unanimously denounced that idea, not wanting to garner attention towards themselves, and I get it.

But I couldn’t not, ya know?

I can withhold specific details (and believe me, I am, A LOT), but experiencing their intentionality and hospitality meant that on a Sunday after church, my knowledge of Jesus was extended past the services I had just attended, and into the realm of tangible, everyday life. With four spoons we scraped down the sides of a pan holding monkey bread and ice cream, everyone encouraging the other to savor the final bite, until the faces that had been unfamiliar were unfamiliar no more. We may have sat down as strangers, but we left as friends.

Time and time again, I have learned that I know Jesus best through people. The potential that lies simmering at the surface of any interaction is both intimidating and enthralling. When poked, though, and stirred, there is usually a depth there, and in that depth is where ordinary moments become sacred.

I don’t always pursue these moments, and more often than not, I actively push them away. But when I am compelled to say yes, it is honestly a wonder that I ever considered saying no. So today, as I reflect on that meal and those couple hours spent together, I echo that beautifully simple prayer: thank you, God, for new friends.

Finding Space in Week 3

We spent our Labor Day laboring.

Last month, the day before our anniversary, we gathered all the spontaneity we could find, and decided at 4pm on a Sunday afternoon to switch the bedrooms in our apartment. Bedroom becomes the study, study becomes the bedroom.

When we moved here last year, there were dreams upon dreams of what the second bedroom could offer us. A place for our books. A place to create, to work, to read. A place for guests to stay. A place for exercise? A place that would serve us in a way the living room, or bedroom, or kitchen could not.

Unpacking didn’t take too long. And sometimes, the things we hoped for in that room happened. But overall, the study has been unused. It’s the stereotypical, second-bedroom of all 2-bedroom apartments: where papers clutter, items without homes gather, and where a quick close of the door locks all the chaos in, without anyone knowing (except us, of course, which didn’t really help).

Walking upstairs, it was the first room you’d see, and most of the time, it caused stress.

When thinking about year 2 of marriage, then, we thought, perfect! this is the easiest motivator for switching things up. now that we know what it’s been, we see what it could be…so….wanna do it? wanna switch the rooms? RIGHT NOW?!

It was pretty fun, too. We got the bedroom situated that day, but found ourselves needing to re-think the new study space altogether.

Over the last month, we tolerated going in-between rooms to get what we needed (our closets hadn’t changed) and combed through books and various belongings to decide what we kept, what we trashed, and what we gave away.

With a full day together yesterday, we tackled some more. Closet sweeps and switches, re-arranging furniture (again), and many talks about what we envisioned, and how to get there. It was productive, and I am much more hopeful about the transitionary phase its existing in now. I’m sitting at the desk, which is cleared and ready for work, enjoying the natural light filling the room and casting playful shadows on the wall.

The floor is walkable.

The books are on shelves.

The room is, overall, usable.

For now, until we can revisit it in a couple weeks, this space has a tangible taste of what’s to come, and it’s exciting.

Mack and I had some serious conversations over the last few days about work, and jobs, and schedules (pertaining to me) and this transition is beginning to normalize, but then there are nights where I’m crying, unsure of how I make this happen, how I pursue so passionately this thing I love, without being swayed within the first couple weeks to other options or part-time gigs.

Both encouraging and discouraging is how violently attached I get to trying this writer "job" for real when talk of something else comes up. It shows me I want this badly, but it also scares me: am I being stubborn? too unrealistic? I want to give writing the best chance I can. I want to go full-force into the “work from home” (yes, cue song) mindset and see what happens. Is it more of a risk financially? Yes, but not harmful. Is it more ambiguous for this schedule-loving, consistency-craving, and routine-abiding lady? Yes, but not impossible. Is it harder describing “what I do" to people, like when you change your name at the bank, and they ask your profession, assume “student,” and once corrected, tell you there’s no category for “freelance writer” or “writer,” so they’ll just say “business owner?” Yes, but oh well.

Week 3 of this change is seeing realities unfold, but rather than push back, I’m trying to participate, and withdraw a capacity of wonder towards the how of it all, without forgetting the why. Week 3 has meant waking up for runs the last couple days, because a jolt in the morning is worth it, and necessary. Week 3 will mean dedicating different hours for creating than for consuming, and intentionality towards environment choices. The study can function for that purpose right now, and being here, rather than working at the kitchen table or on the couch, is gooooood.

I compiled a list of publications last week, and plan to go through them this week, letting the editors know that I exist and want to contribute.

The goal was to write for an hour, and with 5 minutes left, I’m ready for the transition. The mornings have been cooler in Pasadena recently, and I am relishing the breeze from still-open windows, feeling hopeful for the day and ready for what’s next.

(Which, obviously, is lunch).

Happy Tuesday!