This is a meandering post. Just so you know.
Whenever I head to New York City–and head there I do often to visit my daughter–I take canvas shopping bags and a big old cooler to haul back as much food as possible. I dream of the ingredient shopping possible at the greenmarket, the spice shops and Middle Eastern grocers. Most of the year, I’m on the search for dried fava beans and the world’s best hummus, Vietnamese cinnamon and lemon-infused olive oil, mahlab and dried za’atar, Aleppo peppers and Iranian dried limes–things I couldn’t dream of finding in my corner of Vermont but are essential to cooking I do.
But in winter I’m pulled to markets where I just might find fresh, local-ish, ecologically grown vegetables. I’m looking for fruit that looks and smells like itself and not plastic-perfect and shipped from a long way off. I’m hoping beyond hope for vegetables with a shred of nutrition left to them. And flavor. Back in Vermont there are only so many local apples–wonderful as they are, still, in the depth of winter–we can eat before longing for a taste of something else. And yet I watch the birds eat the same four kinds of seeds I put out there day after day; the cats eat the same food for years. I am struck by the human desire for variety, our reliance on food to perk us up when the skies are thick and low. Even though we don’t need much help from our food to stay warm, we crave heavily seasoned stews and roasted anything. Just look at the food blogs pumping out heavy-sounding recipes that right now sound pretty much interchangeable to me. All we really want is snow or spring, but because we can’t change the weather, we turn to food.
Winter is particularly bleak this year. There’s no snow in our valley but plenty of grey, oppressive days. Right now it’s 42 degrees, almost warm enough for my bike but dark and wet. It’s grim out there. In Vermont we expect snow and cold, not this mush.
And inside I’m all out of my storage crops except for garlic, carrots, leeks and dried chiles. The potatoes froze in the barn, the deer got the kale, escarole and sorrel before I did, and somehow the onions were used up by Christmas. The salsas are going fast; I have canned jellies and chutneys and syrups yet in abundance, but they’re laced with sugar, something we use sparingly, so those shelves take quite a while to clear. The freezer’s supply from last summer’s garden is thinning out. I’m pretty much down to lemongrass broth, frozen herb pestos and purees, winter squash and tomatillos, and tomato puree.
I’ve been to our natural foods cooperative three times in the past week, prowling the aisles, hoping to stir my culinary imagination with the local produce I’ve run out of from my own gardens: beets, parsnips, kale, celeriac, potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, broccoli, cabbage. I’ve made slaws, stews, juices, and raw salads. Everything tastes good, some of it tastes great, but still I search and search again. I suppose that also has to do with the fact that I’m on Day 19 of a 21-day cleanse which recommends access to super-nutritious super-fresh foods– pretty tough to do in winter. I must be crazy, especially given that the cleanse eliminates nightshades as well as oranges and grapefruit and bananas. Poor pitiful me.
Not really. Not at all.
I’m moving past the hankering stage to an appreciation of clean, bracing spareness. Stripping down the diet to the essentials–whole foods: grains (no wheat) and nuts (no peanuts), lean proteins, good fats (no dairy), vegetables and fruits and spices–for three weeks each winter has given me a sense of well-being, a lightness of spirit in the middle of a thumpingly grey winter. We can do with less variety. Less quantity. Far less rich ingredients. Bracing is good for a spell every year. It’s the antidote to the Paula Deen-esque food view. A way to gain perspective and toss the toxins out.
And that, I’ve decided, is what winter can do. Something to love about the long, lean months.