Lunch at the Shop, by Peter Miller

A few years ago, a new assistant in my office came up with a plan – we would all meet around our coffee table at precisely 1pm, eat our sundry lunches, have a civilized conversation, and them resume our work. Phones were allowed (we’re not masochists), but being awkward artists, more inclined to our offices and edit bays than people, we did this for two days and never spoke of it again.

Impressively, Peter Miller has been doing this for years with his staff at Peter Miller Books, an architectural and design book store in Seattle. His first book, Lunch at the Shop: The Art and Practice of the Midday Meal, details many of the better meals they’ve had there, as well as his manifesto for having a nice lunch in the first place. It contains recipes throughout, and ends with a two-week meal plan to get your own communal lunch in fighting shape. Whether you take the plunge and reserve a conference room or not, it’s full of great ideas, and has some lovely photos from Christopher Hirscheimer and Melissa Hamilton of Canal House fame.

Pasta with Sausage and Peppers

Pasta with Sausage and Peppers

This is a beautifully refined book, well written and lushly imagined. Put on a proper suit and read it aloud with your best Bill Cunningham accent (“it’s maaahvelous,” I imagine Miller saying as his staff lays out a perfect Danish tartine spread). He trained as a chef before getting into the book business (maybe he’s the real masochist), and I was impressed by how much thought he put into every part of the meal. From prepping in the stockroom to serving ware, each dish beautiful but also simple enough for someone new-to-cooking to put it together. I’m naturally inclined toward snobbery so I really appreciate anyone who lets me indulge it, but it’s not entirely fair – why should only those snooty enough to insist on a nice lunch get one? He speaks in poetry about chives and cilantro, basil and arugula, and we all deserve a little verse in the middle of a hard day. The names of many recipes manage to be both literal and allegorical. 

The book’s layout is a little confusing, like a book store with uncategorized gems to be found in random corners. Some will love it, others will be driven nuts.

Bean soup with meatballs

Bean soup with meatballs

The food genres cover mostly what you would expect from lunch – soup, sandwiches, lentils, pasta. There’s a nice range from meals you can assemble from raw ingredients at your desk, to meals that involve bringing in leftovers or shopping at your local market (they’re lucky enough to be near Pike Place).  There’s something unexpected in each idea though – an herb tucked into a sandwich, a technique like cooking lentils as if they’re risotto, an item that I wouldn’t expect to make a good leftover but did. The one thing I refuse to believe is that people mix together pasta with tomato sauce with raw green salad – no way, sorry, no one has ever done that. But at least it was new – and sometimes people need something crazy to shake up their routines. Which, I guess, is why we should start having lunch in the first place. I'd say we should all just show up for lunch at the shop, but why travel when we can make our own?

make this one thing:
a spinach sandwich, friends with olive and basil

1/2 pound baby spinach leaves
1/4 cup olive oil
4 split bollo or ciabatta rolls
4 tsp black olive tapenade
8 ounces ricotta
1 large beefsteak tomato or 3 roma tomatoes [I used grape, the only palatable winter tomatoes in NYC]
10 to 12 fresh basil leaves
Freshly ground black pepper

Wash the spinach well, even if it is loose, and very well if it is not. Critters and sand love spinach. Using the biggest bowl you have, soak the spinach in cool water, the carefully lift it out, change the water, and repeat until the water is clear. Then spin the spinach or lay it on dishtowels to dry; it must be dry for this dish.

Spread the oil on both split surfaces of each roll. Spread the tapenade on one side of each roll, and the ricotta on the other side.

Cut the tomato into 4 horizontal slices, and lay one slice on the ricotta side of each roll. Tear the basil leaves and lay them over the tomatoes, distributing them evenly among the sandwiches. Lay three tiers of the spinach leaves  (about 10 to 12 leaves of the baby spinach total, maybe only 4 to 5 if the leaves are bigger), curled downward, over the tomato on each roll. It should almost totter with spinach, loosely laid. Season both sides with salt and pepper and close the rolls. (Salt is crucial to this sandwich, as it keeps all the parts in play, but be careful to avoid oversalting - the tapenade can already be salty.)

Serve the sandwiches with something to crunch, such as a sliced radish or a carrot or some plain chips.