Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Preserving the Seasons: December, Week 1

Though Old Man Winter isn't due to make his official entrance until later this month, I have to admit it: he's here already.

Days have turned cold and blustery, with tiny pellets or downy flakes of snow hurtling out of a leaden gray sky to pummel an unwary soul. And while I haven't yet succumbed to the burdensome comfort of my heavy wool coat, I've made good use already of my woolies and thermals to keep me toasty warm on my walks.

It's times like these when the kitchen becomes the true heart and hearth of the home. A chilly day inspires menus of comfort food, from soup and stews to starchy staples and fragrant spiced baked goods.

Unless you live in warmer climes or have taken steps to extend your growing or harvesting season -- something I hope to do next year, now that I've read Eliot Coleman's stimulating Four-Season Harvest -- your sources and stashes of fresh produce may be dwindling swiftly. Apples, potatoes, squash, and root crops are all still available around NE Ohio, but the leafy greens I crave even more now that the days have shortened have largely vanished.

Now is the time to hunker down and start delving into the pantry stores to stretch the last fresh foods. After keeping track of what I had preserved this summer, I compiled a new pair of spreadsheets that I hope will help me keep track of how I'm using my canned and frozen goods, as well as how long those stores last. I'm hoping it will give me a good idea of how much and what form to preserve next year.

But lest you think I'm settling into the dark days of winter all too quickly, have no fear. The holiday season is upon us, too, and that eventually calls us to be a little decadent in our baking, a little more sumptuous in our meals.

Though I've decided not to bake cookies this year, I'll still make three or four pans full of baklava to share with friends this month, using the jars of golden local honey from the farmers' market and even some of those nuts found at a local farm. Closer to Christmas, I'm sure I'll bake a few loaves of julekage, studded with my oven-dried raisins and laced with sweet, exotic cardamom.

I don't generally give many tangible gifts any more (aside from baked goods), but local friends will likely see a little bottle of liqueur, a jar of pickles or jam, or perhaps an herbal sugar or salt to use in cooking. So this month may find me in the kitchen at odd moments, puttering with jars and a last-minute project.

It's sort of the Anything Can Happen month, depending on what kind of time I have available and what I might be inspired to do. Chances are, I won't get through the month without succumbing to the desire to try a new recipe and a new way to use some of what I've put up for winter.

We're halfway through the "Preserving the Seasons" year now, and it's time to shift from the actual food preservation to enjoying the fruits of our labor. How appropriate it is, then, that that halfway point comes at the holidays and gives us even more reason to celebrate the season -- and the seasonality of local foods.

Indulge yourself this season. Try something new. Winter will be here soon enough.

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