I recently noticed that our dandelions are alive and doing well in this year’s balmy January sunshine. I was thinking that this was a sign of impending doom for our normal seasonal cycles, but really, it’s not that strange. In my phenology post I shared how I check my planting dates each year, or at the very least try to be aware of when I WANT to be planting things. In my work-a-day world, it seems my planting is always running behind for one reason or another. Perhaps that’s why I have never had an enormous bumper crop of peas. I never plant them in January when the dandelions come into bloom. I’m always running late and hoping they’ll have enough time to produce before the heat gets to them!
Despite the little bursts of yellow here and there from the dandelions, it is going to be quite a while before anything else much will be sprouting for the dinner table. Garlic scapes and green onions are still a little ways off. The last of the goat cheese curd came out of my freezer last week to make alfredo sauce and marry with blackberry preserves to turn whole grain toast into something so much more than a mere breakfast side.
In fact, winter root-time is still in full swing at our house with the occasional side of hand-picked pinto beans. Roasted Rosemary neeps (turnips), mashed neeps, scalloped neeps, and baked neeps are still a major part of dinner. For some reason I never get tired of them. Sweet neeps (rutabagas), beets, and sweet potatoes make delicious sweet delicacies for getting those vitamins and minerals that can be lacking in the modern diet, and warm the soul (even if your body doesn’t need quite as much warming as usual this year).
Storage apples are a long lost tradition throughout apple-growing regions of the world. Some of the old-time favorites are falling out of modern favor because they’re not so stunning at first bite from the market. Before there was international shipping of fruits from places of eternal summer there was the root cellar, and if you’ve ever tried a Red Delicious apple after a few months of sitting, you’ll know why there are two different kinds of apples. I will NOT eat a mealy apple. Sauce it perhaps, but eat it straight? I think not.
Storage apples were much prized varieties because they either held their own well, or actually improved with storage. Lately Arkansas Black apples have been appearing in our local grocery stores and no one around here is particularly awed by their slightly starchy and mellow flavor. Tuck one away in a vegetable storage bin however, and about this time of year you have a beautiful dark red (nearly black) treasure waiting. Varieties such as the Winter Bananna work this way. They do not seem worthy of their fame at first bite off the tree, but put them away for a cold dark winter day, and you’ll be amazed at what treasures can be found in an appropriately cold and reliably damp basement. There is no better pie than one you know you made from the ground up. It sounds silly, but it’s true and made even better by the knowledge that you couldn’t just pick the ingredients up in your backyard for another 6 months. The bounty of summer is relished in winter.
Last but not least, no winter diet is complete without the jars! Summer’s abundance is just that, abundant. We have extra to share, to sell, to give away, and to pawn off on unsuspecting visitors who leave their car doors unlocked. There comes a time in every summer, where it is no longer polite to offer zuccini to your friends or neighbors, for they are most likely the ones that left those grocery bags of zuccini hanging on your doorknob yesterday.
We freeze a lot of zuccini and summer squash, and in truth, a lot of summer’s bounty can be preserved quite well by freezing. However, that in no way replaces my jars of summer salsa, blackberry jam, home-canned peaches, and apple butter. Sure those things COULD be frozen, but who wants to eat previously frozen salsa. It’s SUPPOSED to come from a jar, and why freeze apple butter when the process so lends itself to sealing into those beautiful jars. There’s a comfort in looking at full shelves in a kitchen that is doubled if not increased exponentially by the connections those jars make for us. In those jars are the days we plowed, harrowed, planted, watered, weeded, staked, watered, watered, and harvested those treasures.
Then family and friends prepare. The preparing is almost as important to the emotional process as the eating is! Friends and family gather around the big apple butter pot, peeling, slicing, grating, and tossing in a little of this and that until the caramel aroma fills the space and we’re all intoxicated with the cinnamon scent of fall, heavy with the memory of summer and the anticipation of the *suck-POP* of opening a jar on a cold winter evening by the fire. THAT is eating in December, January, February, and in some places…on well into what southerners see as spring.
Living in the modern world, I never actually have to worry about getting down to just a cellar-full of moldy potatoes and a hunk of stale bread. There are plenty of colorful delights waiting for me just down the street at the local grocery. I really savor the occasional orange in winter and I sure can’t pull one of those out of my root cellar, but even with the modern convenience of year-round availability, we all know that the best eating must follow the seasons. A February tomato is NOT the same as a July tomato, and the time for fresh asparagus only truly happens once per year. We all miss the spring with its promise of something new. Green onions, give way to strawberries, then cantaloupe, watermelon, and fresh peaches. It’s coming, and perhaps sooner than we think. This heat wave we’ve called winter is passing, and I have proof. So here’s to good eating for today and the hope of fresh-eating for tomorrow. My daffodils are getting ready to bloom 🙂