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Culinary Winter

Mar
17
2008

I don’t know about you, but as far as I’m concerned March is the dead of winter culinarily. I hate it. It’s that time of year when there’s “nothing to cook” and my kitchen seems as barren as the trees outside. How can I say that? The cooking magazines are filled with spring dishes while the grocery is still filled with winter ingredients. And all too often, old and tired winter ingredients.

WinterMaybe it’s the anticipation of Spring in the kitchen which begins about the middle of April – a few short week away. It’s a wonderful time when decent asparagus begins to arrive in the market, and when you can head out into the woods and find fiddlehead ferns. Lettuce grows in cold frames. The potted herbs that have lain dormant all winter develop fresh shoots and, with restraint, can be harvested. Spring isn’t bountiful, but it’s like nature’s appetizer, awakening the cooking equivalent of taste buds. My fingers, saliva glands, and imagination begin to twitch with anticipation of the food stuffs to come.

Summer is an orgy of opportunity with first one thing and then another coming into season. I begin by gorging on raw, unadorned vegetables. Peas, cucumbers, beans, and tomatoes enjoyed as close to the vine as possible whether in the field or at road-side market stands. And then, as the season wears on, I add vinaigrettes and simple cooking techniques back to my repertoire. Outdoor grilling regains its place as a primary cooking method. But cooking techniques range from spending eight hours nursing a few racks of ribs in a smoker to flash-cooking trout fillets on a grill. Pool and patio dining provide a psychic sauce to meals. Picnics bring their own challenges and opportunities.

Summer transmutes into fall – a period that begins by stuffing my face with the last of the season’s tomatoes and corn and evolves into apple pies and baked winter squash. Some days hot and some cool, I bounce like a ping pong ball from the light fair of summer to the heartier meals of the coming Winter.

And then it is Winter, at least outside. Inside I feast on stews and braises and soups. Beets and parsnips and rutabaga become staples that I roast or mash or both and then make into casseroles. Sometimes I picnic with family or friends indoors on the floor in front of a fire with pots of fondue or rounds of raclette. Thanksgiving and Christmas add their edible traditions. Hot cocoa and hot buttered rum restore me after a long walk in sere forests and fields.

Eventually March and it’s bracketing weeks of late February and early April arrives and with it the kitchen’s spiritual winter. What Douglas Adams might call, “the long, dark tea time of the culinary soul”. I’m tired of turnips. The pears are out of season and mealy if edible at all. The search for yet another new recipe for a beef braise has no appeal, and after months of living behind closed windows and doors the air in the house has become so stale and muddled that the odors of a long simmer are no longer arousing.

I have become stale and muddled. I fix meatballs and marinara sauce and the flavors are as uninspired as I am. The texture as spongy as I feel. Daffodils and crocuses intimate the coming spring but without offering immediate gratification…Wait a minute – Nope, neither is listed as edible. Even the bread I bake seems to lack savor. Perhaps the yeast in my starter is also tired of winter and feeling more mild than wild.

My kitchen is like the weather with the day beginning too cold for a jacket and ending too warm for a coat. No recipe, no produce, no meat, no herb or spice are quite right and all I can do is hold on until spring.

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