Monday, November 03, 2008

Preserving the Seasons: November, Week 1

As autumn's brilliant colors begin to fade, the calendar slides into November and signals a change in the weather. (As we've already seen!)

Daylight Savings Time rolls back at the start of the month, and while a few people appreciate the earlier sunrise and the precious chance to enjoy peaceful frosty mornings, most folks find that earlier sunsets challenge their notions of time and of what activities can be crammed into the space of an evening.

The onset of colder weather persuades us to bundle up in thick sweaters, to pull out warm coats and hats, or even to stay home and curl up under a toasty blanket. Despite frigid winds, though, there's work to be done outside -- raking leaves, cleaning up the garden, one last round of mowing -- before succumbing to inertia becomes a real option.

Out in the fields, the farmers are still busy harvesting, though their crops are dwindling and the farmers' market may have already closed for the year. Farmstands and orchards still have bins full of autumn-hued squashes, potatoes, and apples, but the selection of available produce shrinks rapidly as the weather turns downright cold.

November, then, invites us to slow down: to slow the pace of our living, to take the time to see the world around us in a new way, to savor the brief respite before the holiday whirlwind, and to rest.

Just as the overworked gardener looks forward to the end of the harvest season and the constant need to check on ripening produce, the home cook who has spent the preceding four or five months laboring over steaming pots views November with a heaving sigh of relief. Food preservation may continue, but at a slower pace, and if the dedicated locavore isn't flat on his or her back after all the peeling, chopping, blanching, freezing, drying, and/or canning -- well, it's cause for a celebration.

By a happy coincidence, November provides the perfect opportunity for celebrating the bounty of local foods as well as the hard work of the cook. When Thanksgiving rolls around late in the month, everyone is ready to gorge themselves on a feast to end all feasts. And though an all-American Thanksgiving often exemplifies excess and can draw heavily on processed or industrially produced pre-packaged foods, its origins as a harvest festival gives us every reason to showcase the glorious cornucopia of local agriculture.

Among the edible treasures we can still find around northeast Ohio at this time of year are:

--a variety of apples

--onions, garlic, leeks
--potatoes and especially sweet potatoes
--squash of many shapes, sizes, and colors
--root vegetables such as carrots, parsnips, turnips, and rutabagas (all of which seem sweeter after frost)
--dark, leafy greens like kale, spinach, chard
--nuts, including chestnuts, hazelnuts, and the other delicious nuts I recently found
--honey, maple syrup, and sorghum molasses

Many of these can be stored in a root cellar or a simple makeshift cold storage bin or room. (I've closed the heating vents in my studio and stashed my cold-storage foods there.) If you have any room left in your freezer, you might freeze a quart or two of cider for the holidays (though many orchards will still have cider for sale for a couple months to come). If you can find local grains or flours, butter, eggs, and even maple sugar, you might want to consider stocking up on those items for your holiday baking.

You'll want to continue checking your already-preserved food, especially canned goods, throughout this month, and you may even want to start adding preserved food into your menus. Stews and stir-frys make simple, hearty dinners at this time of year, and if you have a slow cooker, it's time to pull it out and fire it up. If you have any produce left from the farmers' market (and I still have plenty of tomatoes and peppers sitting around, as well as a final eggplant), now's the time to pull out a good recipe to make the most of that fresh flavor since you may not be able to enjoy it again until next year.

Though the coming cold weather might make you a little anxious about eating good, healthy local produce throughout the "dark days" of winter, you'll be pleasantly surprised to find that no matter how much or how little you put up this summer, those preservation efforts will add a little touch of summer to your winter meals.

There's so much to be thankful for at this time of year!

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