The weather has been weird this winter. There, now that I’ve dispensed with that bit of gauche understatement, let me go on to say that I knew things had approached the ridiculous when I found myself thinking on December 27th, “Mmmm…some watermelon would taste great right now!” Obviously my physical being, overloaded at that point with rich holiday food, craved a change. At the same time, bedrock reality insisted that the temperature outside had hit the seventies. “Where am I, Australia?” I asked myself while craving the taste of light food, fruity food, and–basically–summery food. Unlike The Honourable Phryne Fisher, the title character (and very stylish dresser) of Kerry Greenwood’s detective series (available at DCPL), I am, of course, a lifelong resident of the Northern Hemisphere. So what flavors am I supposed to crave at this time of year?
According to the The Flavor Bible by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg, the following flavors belong, typically, to winter: beef, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, chocolate, citrus, game, lobster, maple syrup, pork, root vegetables, “warming” spices (such as ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg) and winter greens like collards and kale. To me, this list makes perfect sense. While summer and early fall bring a bonanza of fruit in season, what we mainly get in winter is citrus. Maple trees, of course, need a specific range of temperature in order to yield their sap. Many animals too, including some shellfish, traditionally came into season in the very late fall and winter and were “harvested” (a word I can’t use, even after years of meat-eating, without pause) at that time. Compare Page and Dornenburg’s winter list to their list of summer flavors: apricots, arugula, beans, blackberries, cherries, corn, eggplant, peaches, strawberries, tomatoes and yes…good old watermelon. These lists reconfirm my belief that the gingerbread I bake tastes best when the weather is cold, and chocolate–though many of us agree it goes down easy any time of year–has a velvety richness that really does make a good winter contrast to the light, vibrant flavors of summer fruit.
And I think this is what “seasonal flavors” are all about. It isn’t so much that you can’t get watermelon in December or venison in July. Imports and freezing technology have completely changed what is or is not available during certain parts of the year. Still, there’s something to be said for keeping certain tastes and textures to their traditional season. If nothing else, it can make for interesting reading. Allow me to recommend two very different, yet equally entertaining, accounts of seasonal eating–both available at DCPL.
Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life is the novelist’s chronicle of the year her family spent growing most of their own food. What they didn’t grow themselves was purchased from local farmers–the exceptions being wheat flour, olive oil, coffee, chocolate, dried fruit and some spices. Kingsolver is a moralist in the best sense, lacing her narrative with wry humor instead of finger wagging, and the book winds up being as gripping as any novel. It is, in fact, one of my favorites.
I love memoir, especially culinary memoir, and Ruth Reichl is, in my opinion, one of the best practitioners of this particular craft. Her enticing writing, full of candor and poetry, swirls around themes of love and work and family and, most of all, food. I love, and have re-read often, Tender At the Bone, Comfort Me With Apples and Garlic and Sapphires. Reichl’s latest book, My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes that Saved My Life, is something a little different. The book is partially Reichl’s story of how she suddenly lost her job when, in 2009, Gourmet‘s parent company ended the magazine’s almost sixty-year run. (Reichl became the editor in 1999.) The book is also a cookbook as Reichl chronicles healing herself of pain, and the loss of her professional identity, by cooking. The book is divided into four sections–Fall, Winter, Spring and Summer–and Reichl fills each section with recipes appropriate to that season (at least if you live in upstate New York as Reichl did at the time). Fall, for example, is the time for Buttermilk Potatoes with Brown Butter inspired by a trip to a local farmers market, or just a simple Steak Sandwich, equally inspired, by the unexpected kindness of a stranger at the airport. Examples of what Reichl calls “word pictures” herald pieces of narrative and accompanying recipes. (Reichl claims that Twitter opened up an entire new way of communicating–more formal and incantatory–and though some have found these haiku-like pieces to be excellent fodder for parody, I think they are charming.) The recipes are approachable, the photography is beautiful and, all in all, Reichl’s always compelling voice comes through with clarity and new strength. Highly recommended.
The previously mentioned Flavor Bible is an excellent reference for anyone interested in learning improvisational cooking. Certainly, cooking with the seasons is, in my opinion at least, a viable way of gaining confidence in one’s skills and tastes. If you think you might be interested in this approach, check out the following offerings from DCPL:
Tender: A Cook and His Vegetable Patch by Nigel Slater – all about vegetables from a passionate gardener.
Ripe: A Cook in the Orchard – also by Slater but focused on fruit.
Root to Leaf: A Southern Chef Cooks Through the Seasons by Steven Satterfield, genius chef at, and co-owner of, Atlanta’s Miller Union.
The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen: A Fresh Take on Tradition by Amelia Saltsman – an original approach to a rich and multi-faceted cuisine.
Today, it’s 45 degrees where I live in Decatur, GA, and the forecast promises a low tonight of 34. So what’s for dinner? I don’t know about you, but I’m making a nice, hot batch of Leek and Potato Coup.
Are you a seasonal eater? What food do you like best in cold weather? How about when it’s sweltering outside?