Caroline Barrett

The Empty Nest: Not So Empty Anymore

Caroline BarrettHere’s my Times Union story from June 2023 (you can see it on their website here, or read below.) It’s all about kids moving back home, and there’s some recipes to go along with it: Crispy Chicken Sandwiches, Avocado, Cucumber and Sesame Salad and Strawberry Granola Crisp.

It took a while for me to get used to the empty nester thing, but I did, eventually, get the hang of it. 

The most important part is enjoying the company of my spouse and knowing that kids are finding their places, comfortably, in the world. But I also found joy in some of the details. There is knowing there won’t be a sink full of dirty dishes when I get home. And there won’t be nine loads of laundry lined up and waiting before I can put my stuff in. What’s more, there is something nice about deciding, with Paul, that dinner will simply be a piece of toast with hummus. It’s freeing. 

So there I was, settling into my role of empty nester, which is a little like going into the ocean, just up to my knees. I was getting used to it, but not going all the way in. We knew, after all, that Elliot would be coming home for a few months after freshman year. But then Luca told us that he would be moving back from Portland, and probably staying with us for a while. And then Zoe decided she would move home, save money, decide what to do next. Our nest was suddenly looking full. Overflowing. And part of me felt a little panicky. What would it be like for the five of us to squish into our little house? Five grown people, four dogs and one cat? I worried about how it would all work. For a few years now, we’ve only ever lived together for a holiday.

We are five adults with vastly different living and eating habits, and somehow, we all survived together before. So we will do it again. I will do what I’ve always done: cook food that looks good, is healthy and rarely pleases all palates. With just Elliot home right now, I have the chance to ease into a full house. Just like the ocean, I’m getting used to it before going all the way under. And Elliot loves to cook and eat, so he’s fun to have around. He’s a great sidekick in the kitchen, and he’ll chop and stir and fry and taste as we go. Fresh out of the college dorm, Elliot missed real food. He does manage to silently slip away, just before we wash dishes. We’re working on that one. 

I made a salad recently, a crispy and creamy and just-right salad that is easy to make and goes with a simple hot-weather meal (think chicken or a piece of salmon on the grill). I love dishes that are made with just a few ingredients. Each thing added, when there’s only but a few of them, shines bright. Here, it’s a perfectly ripe avocado, sliced and tossed with cucumber. Before putting the two together, take the time to sprinkle salt over the cucumber and allow it to rest. The salt draws some of the moisture out, resulting in a very crisp and flavorful bite. After 20 minutes or so, blot it dry, and then combine with the other ingredients. I save radish tops for a dish like this, as they add a good, snappy bite. (You could use arugula or kale or dandelion greens instead.) Once you’re ready to eat, drizzle on a bit of olive oil (the extra virgin kind), a drop or two of toasted sesame oil, and a squeeze of lemon. Elliot, funny guy he is, doesn’t like cucumbers, so he eyed the salad warily. Just like when he was a boy, he went to the fridge and took a handful of cherry tomatoes to eat instead. Oh, well. 

We made a chicken dish the other night, inspired by the crispy chicken sandwiches the young people are eating right now. This brought Elliot out of his room and into the kitchen, where he seasoned the flour, dredged the chicken pieces, fried them each very carefully, and then assembled his masterpiece, piled high with pickles and lettuce and tomatoes, and slathered with the sauce we made. He wasn’t ready to say that it was better than what you can get at a chicken joint, but we sure did have fun making them together. I pulled out kimchi for mine and Paul went for spicy peppers. There is beauty in making a sandwich exactly the way you want it, and I have always liked making a dinner like this one, where everyone’s personality stands out in their own version. 

Ah, dessert. We all love dessert and there is nothing that brings my family together quite like a pie, cake or a fruit crisp. While we are a group of meat eaters, vegetarians, health food and junk food lovers alike, we all believe in dessert. Here’s a recipe for a family-bonding fruit crisp, made with seasonal strawberries (the first to show up at the farmer’s market!) and whatever granola you have on hand. A friend taught me about using granola instead of rolled oats when making fruit crisp. Using granola, any kind, makes the whole thing more flavorful and a little toastier. I usually avoid dried fruit, though, because a turn in the oven can dry it out and turn raisins and such hard (which doesn’t feel good on the teeth). The best part of the fruit crisp is the edge, the place where the fruit caramelizes and turns a dark shade of red. We have been known to fight over it. The crisp is good with whipped cream (even the canned kind), any flavor of ice cream or even eaten directly from the pan, cold. And since it has granola and plenty of fresh fruit, this dessert would be equally awesome with a cup of coffee while reading the morning paper. 

We’re waiting here, for the arrival of more Barretts, more dogs and a crowded house. It will be fine when they come, just like it always is when we’re together. It isn’t always easy, we don’t always agree (or like the same foods) but it just works. By the time everyone arrives, I will have had time to get used to the waters, and I’ll dive right in. 


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