Holiday lesson #1: Things (often) don’t go to plan.
I watch a lot of reruns of The Great British Baking Show, and in many episodes there’s a moment when a baker presents something that’s falling apart, or sinking in the middle, or only halfway decorated. One of the judges will smile sympathetically, and say “looks like things didn’t go to plan today.”
Over the course of the episode, the viewer has watched while the baker transitions from a state of ambitious, hopeful planning to being covered in flour or smeared in melted chocolate, dramatically short on time, and overwhelmed by how poorly reality has aligned with intention.
That just about sums up my December. There is so much I planned on doing, cooking, writing about. And I’d say that about 50% of it “went to plan,” while a solid half ended up in the form of recipe fails or projects that didn’t even get underway.
For Christmas this week, for example, I had a few holiday recipes I wanted to create and offer up in this space. I have made a grand total of none of them, minus a cookie recipe that was a legitimate disaster. I have the groceries for some of them in my fridge right now, but things have come up in the last few days that have just made it impossible for me to cook. Or even to post weekend reading last night, which was my intention, too.
Sometimes things don’t go to plan. This shouldn’t be surprising—the surprising part is how often I’m surprised when life goes in unforeseen directions.
Holiday lesson #2: Time is elastic.
This is an expression that a good friend gave to me years ago, and I know I’ve mentioned it before. Time is finite in many ways, but it can also stretch and extend in all sorts of unexpected directions.
One of my specialities is a time scarcity mindset, in which things must go exactly according to schedule…or else? Or what? I’m not sure. I never feel as if there’s enough time to get done what needs doing, and I’m quick to panic when I feel as though I’m getting behind on things.
In the last few weeks, though, I’ve been struck by how generous time can be. I’ve been surprised how much I can do when I actually resolve to move consciously and slowly, rather than rushing. And I’ve learned a lot from watching how generous other people are with their time.
This includes colleagues who helped me to extend deadlines and to see that things were more workable than I thought they were. It also includes my observation of peers and friends who commit their time reasonably: calmly taking things on, at a realistic pace. I have a lot to learn about staying productive without overextending and burning out. I have good role models, too.
Holiday lesson #3: There’s beauty in the unexpected.
As a person who seeks both control and familiarity, I’m not quick to embrace the unexpected. But all of the beauty and goodness that I’ve encountered this month has arrived in unanticipated moments and scenarios—situations I didn’t see coming, not in spite of but because so little was going to plan.
Very special encounters, conversations, and revelations have shown up in the spaces between my “failed” undertakings lately. In spite of how chaotic and weird this month has been, it brought new connections, friendships and ways of seeing into my life. I feel surprised and grateful. If this is what happens when plans don’t work out, then I may want to consider planning less.
Holiday lesson #4: There’s beauty in the familiar.
I spent a lot of this fall hurtling myself into the new. I say that with a slight smirk, because my idea of novelty is probably on the modest side.
But really, I did. I wrapped up grad school and stepped into a new professional chapter. That process has been slower than I counted on, but I’ve been doing it, all the same. I traveled far away from home. I formed some new community through yoga and challenged myself to deepen my practice for the first time in a long time. I went on a lot of dates. I took my home baking in a lot of new, fun directions.
By the time this month rolled around, I think I’d forgotten that there’s a fine balance between the cherished familiar and the new. I was pushing myself to try so many new recipes that I stopped making old favorites from the blog or from Power Plates, which has been part of my cooking routine for many years. I was overreaching in a lot of ways, cooking included, and that may be why it’s been such a struggle to create anything I’m really happy to eat.
On Saturday, I resolved to make something tried and true. It was the most rewarding, comforting night of cooking I’ve had in a long time. The recipe I chose was the Moroccan Sweet Potatoes from Power Plates.
I love this recipe, and a lot of other people who cook regularly from the book do, too. (It’s one of Ashley’s favorites, and I think her photo of it couldn’t be prettier.) It’s got that sweet and savory quality that I love so much, a big drizzle of tahini dressing, the comfort of potatoes, and plant protein from legumes—in other words, so many of my favorite things.
And it’s a great make ahead dish for company, if you’re still looking for a last minute holiday idea. Here’s the recipe.
- 4 medium sweet potatoes, scrubbed
- 1 cup dried brown lentils, rinsed
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
- 1 small white or yellow onion, chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, minced finely or grated on a microplane
- 2 tomatoes, chopped, or 1 (14.5 ounce or 411 g) can diced tomatoes, drained
- 1 tablespoon finely grated or minced fresh ginger, or 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika
- 1 tablespoon harissa paste, or 1 teaspoon ground chili powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 4 cups firmly packed baby spinach
- water, as needed
- 2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
- Optional: chopped fresh parsley, fresh cilantro, or scallions
Everyday Lemon Tahini Dressing
- 1/4 cup water, plus more as needed
- 1/4 cup tahini
- 1 small clove garlic, finely minced or grated on a microplane
- 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1/2 teaspoon agave nectar or maple syrup
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- Preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C) and line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Put the sweet potatoes on the lined baking sheet and prick each several times with a fork. Bake for 45 to 60 minutes, until fork-tender.
- Meanwhile, cook the lentils as directed on page 15. Drain well.
- Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the cumin seeds and cook, stirring constantly, for 1 to 2 minutes, until the seeds start to pop. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 to 7 minutes, until tender and translucent. Add the garlic and tomatoes and cook, stirring frequently, for 1 to 2 minutes, until the garlic is fragrant. Decrease the heat to low and stir in the lentils, ginger, cinnamon, paprika, harissa, and salt, then stir in the spinach. Cook, stirring frequently, until the spinach has wilted, adding water by the 1⁄4 cup (60 ml) if needed to prevent sticking. Stir in the pomegranate molasses. Taste and adjust seasonings if desired.
- Cut each sweet potato in half and use a fork to coarsely mash the flesh, still in the skin. Place two halves on each serving plate and top them with a generous scoop of the lentils. Serve right away, with a drizzle of the tahini dressing and the optional fresh herbs.
These potatoes have brought comfort, familiarity, and a sense of grounding to an otherwise strange, unpredictable month. Maybe they can do the same for you, sometime soon.
Whether you feel peaceful or disrupted, content or in turmoil, organized or chaotic this week, I wish you moments of joy in your heart and calm in your body. Happy holidays, friends.