Late Winter brings it’s own melancholy, with a longing anticipation of Spring as the weary trudge over a landscape white as the eye can see.
January 23rd, yesterday, I strapped on my cross-country skis for the first time this winter.
This Winter, waiting for snow cover deep enough to kick through has nearly killed me in anticipation, especially given that last year I was out almost every week between late November to well through March. Every snowfall that came our way found me holding my breath, anxiously awaiting the perfect amount that never came.
Certain activities are just part of who I am. Cooking, for one. But this, the strapping on of tiny thin skis, grasping the little poles and facing an open path of fresh snow, wind in the trees and clouds scuttling overhead is also a part of me that goes back to moments in childhood that seared to my brain like fire. I don’t even know how old I was the first time I put on the skinny skis. But I was a kid, and our school class went to a golf course one winter day, lush with a endless expanse of unbroken snow and we all were given those skis, the long poles and funny shoes and we set out over the empty golf course, where it clicked within me.
And in repeated winters, over growing years, those endless snows spread out in front of me as I faced them, tall poles in hand, face to the wind. Then at some point, they just stopped. But the call within me never left and finally several winters ago, I urged Mike to get ski packages and join me on the trails. It was one of the best decisions we’ve ever made.
Because the first time I headed along a trail, pushing every muscle from shoulder to ankle over the snow, I felt that thrill again. I felt the flood of oxygen to every working muscle. I felt the quiet cold air and saw those dancing clouds. I felt alive again, working with muscles that still held the perfect memory of how this was done, even though it had to be more than 20 years since we’d moved in this way. I marveled at a body that remembered, when I had nearly forgotten; marveled at muscles that snapped into recall, pulling memory from some long ago moment in time. And I wondered why I’d stopped.
There is a tiny little park near our house; hardly a spot on a map but it’s flat, and just large enough to make for a perfect workout. I carve a trail around the perimeter, and go four, five six, sometimes eight laps or more around that park. It’s enough to make my lungs pump fiercely. It’s enough to drench me in sweat. It’s plenty, and it’s close and it’s 45 minutes to an hour of intense cardio work. If I can do this a few times a week, it’s all I could ever ask for from Winter.
The snow flies, and I hear the siren call from the trails. Yesterday was that call, and barely a half hour after I was home from work, I faced that empty park, with a wicked cold Easterly wind on my back and stepped in to my skinny skis. The first path over the snow cuts my trail, and every lap gets easier as I go. My lungs engage, my muscles warm, the wind doesn’t seem so bitter and Winter doesn’t seem all that long anymore. It’s just me and the snow.
It’s Just Write Tuesday, Version 19.0.
When I wrote this post, which was last week, it had just snowed a gorgeous fluffy three or four inches, the temperatures were decent for a February day and it was lovely, really. But today, when this post goes live, the weather has sunk once again into a deep, bone chilling cold, so I do realize that asking a Minnesotan to embrace winter is quite a stretch. Still, I’m posting this because when it was actually occurring with me, it was really beautiful, and it’s worth sharing even if today is merciless and cold. Also, the photos are not in black and white. It was just the light that day, low and monochromatic and beautiful in it’s own soft, gray way.
There are plenty of those in Minnesota who, right about now I realize, are really, really tired of winter. We’ve had a lot of snow, most certainly, and it causes quite a few headaches, especially if you commute to your work. I’ve been fortunate that being out driving in it hasn’t been necessary for me during the worst of the storms. I can sit home, warm and snug and the only hassle I need to deal with is getting the newest snowfall amounts off the driveway, up and over the six-foot high snowbanks lining the sides. It’s Mother Nature’s workout at it’s finest.
And I’m a cross-country skier, so naturally the more snow, and the more frequently it snows, the better the skiing conditions will be. After our most recent several inches of fluff fell, I slid my skis in my car on a quiet Monday morning and headed over to the regional park near our house where a perfect 3K trail is carved through woods and wide open areas. When I arrived, there was a snow-shoeing class going on, with young children and their parents. I locked my boots into my skis and slid off on the trail. Pretty soon, the rest of the world fell away and it was just me, the sheer glaring white of a fresh snowfall and an empty park. The weather was perfect, and with each stride I felt like I was propelling myself further away from the clenched teeth feel of everyday life and into some place where I could breathe deep, let go and just be.
Sometimes when I ski, the rhythm of the stride, the movements of my shoulders and my very breath all seem like they’re fighting one another to co-exist. It’s a struggle to sweep myself along the trail; I feel clumsy and breathless, like I just can’t make my body work the way it needs to. On other days, within the first 5 minutes, my body slips into the familiar patterns it’s known since I was a young girl, and every muscle, breath and reach feels like the well-oiled machine that it is. On this snowy and silent Monday, I had one of those perfect days where it all fit. And with the trail to myself, I stretched, flew, slowed, stopped and breathed in the clear cold goodness of a winter day.
At one point in the trail, both sides are closely guarded by long stands of large pine trees, with sweeping boughs of green. They line the path like sentries, watching as you pass. I like to stop on this part, to look around under the trees as it’s a good place for wildlife to lurk as the tree cover tends to prevent the snowfall accumulation on the ground underneath. Sometimes there are deer in those trees, silently watching me; one time I was blessed to see a bright red fox for one good look before he leapt off, thick tail flashing wildly. This morning, I glimpsed a quiet rabbit, ears placed against it’s back under one majestic pine, and I stopped to catch my breath and watch. It was nibbling on something, paying little attention to me. I was struck with how content it looked, sitting there in a thick fur coat, like this snowy day was just another part of life.
And in reality, it is. The animals know nothing else but instinct. They just know what to do and how to manage the seasons as they change. And we could pick up a clue or two from their behavior. I don’t think they hang around each other, complaining about the current snow, the cold temperatures, and how much longer it is until Spring, at least those that stay here year round. But it seems like human beings somehow become hard-wired to complain about what they can’t change. Somehow there’s a sense of entitlement to having life exactly the way you want it, all the time. When it’s cold we want it hot, then when it’s hot we wish it wasn’t. The glass is full, but we drain it, then want it full again; always wishing for what is not. I don’t love the bitter cold, but there isn’t a single thing I can do about it when it comes except wait it out, wrapped up snug in wool sweaters. No words that can be formed with my tongue will make any difference, and the more bitterness I throw at circumstances beyond my control, the higher my dissatisfaction with my life rises. And that’s no good for anyone.
This all was churning through my mind as I skied further on the trail that day, listening to the whirl of wind over the open snow, and the moaning of a train whistle nearby. Being content with winter is challenging, I’ll be the first to admit that. But it’s also inevitable where we live. The snow falls, the snow banks grow, the muck in the streets covers our cars and potholes are everywhere. Granted, that part of the season isn’t the prettiest, but out there in the park that day, with just the wind and the train, and the endless lines of brown branches against the leaden sky, there’s a beauty that shouldn’t be ignored. And the best part about Winter is that Spring always comes, like the sunrise, a new day and with a sweet breath of relief.
(photo from “That’s Yummy”)
We’re woefully into November’s gray and flat winter light. The cloud cover expanse across the sky is leaden and heavy and daylight begins to fade around 4:00pm, yet even in the best of midday light, the ability to take a good photo often is a crapshoot. I don’t really mind the changes that come around this time of year, this first adventure into winter, the shorter days and descent into wool sweaters, layers, warm socks and extra blankets on the bed. The coziness of it is good, it’s necessary, and there’s a lot of it that can be so soothing- like the leaping blue flame under the daily tea-kettle, the ritual of a warm steaming cup to carry me through the late afternoon; there’s the presence of the strands of tiny twinkling lights we’ve used to adorn certain areas of our home- the stairwell for those dark, dark mornings, the top of the cupboard in the kitchen, and the fancy festooned bakers rack in the corner of our kitchen.
The tiny lights are nice in those early mornings before the dawn when Mike is awake; it provides enough light to get the coffee pot going and the cat dishes filled without having that eye-burning glare that we encounter when first out of bed. The stairwell lights guide him safely down in the darkness. We put these lights up many years ago at Christmas time, and they’ve proven to be so useful that we never removed them. In those gloomy November afternoons they add a warm touch to our home, along with the singing tea kettle, and those steaming cups. Add a candle or two and you can chase those dark hours away a lot easier.
A good warm oven and simmering pot on the stove does that too. I recently came across a recipe for Butternut Squash Pasta, in Gourmet magazine’s Best of 65 Years cookbook. It was a simple process of cooking cubed squash then tossing it with garlic and pasta, but I thought to take it one step further and create an awesome squash puree to mix in with pasta, creating a saucy topping that clung to every single bite.
Problem was, as delicious as it tasted, it looked just ghastly. Imagine, brightly colored orange squash mixed with cooked whole wheat pasta. Oh gads…. it was homely as all get out, but tasted glorious and superbly like comfort in my bowl. I do recommend it, even if I can’t show you the result. Roast your halved butternut squash until it’s good and soft. Scrape the flesh into a bowl, add a little broth or milk to help thin it, then mash it smooth. You can whiz it in the food processor too. The resulting puree should be thick, close to the texture of canned pumpkin, and can be used like canned pumpkin, which, after all, is squash right?
Having the use of pureed squash on hand made it a cinch to whip up a batch of muffins too, and after finding a recipe for Whole Wheat Muffins with Pumpkin and Quinoa on Fork, Knife and Spoon, I knew those had to somehow come out of my oven in the near future. With a little trip towards the healthy side of muffins, these little beauties came out bouncy soft, only the slightest bite of sweet and full of chewy nibs of quinoa blended with the sweet taste of roasted squash.
Touched inside and out with toasted coconut, they had a lot going for them. A bite for breakfast, a quick pick me up snack or a nice late night treat before climbing under piles of blankets, they fill in all parts of your day with a compliment for your tummy. Follow the link to Kate’s blog ( I know! Another Kate! ) for the original recipe. I doctored mine up to utilize what I had on hand for my version.
Whole Wheat Muffins with Quinoa and Squash
2 c. whole wheat flour
1-1/2 c. cooked quinoa
1/2 c. pure maple syrup
2 t. baking powder
1 t. baking soda
1 t. ground cinnamon
1/2 t. ground nutmeg
1/4 t. ground allspice
1/2 t. sea salt
1 c. cooked butternut squash
3/4 c. buttermilk
3 T. oil
1 t. vanilla extract
1/2 c. shredded coconut, toasted
Preheat oven to 375 and spray muffin pans, or line with paper. You will get approximately 18 muffins.
To cook quinoa- measure one cup of water in a saucepan and place over medium burner. Rinse 1/2 cup of quinoa in a wire strainer under cold running water, shaking to rinse thoroughly. Place quinoa in saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer about 10-15 minutes until all the water is absorbed. Remove pan from heat and let stand for 10 minutes, then scrape cooked quinoa onto a plate and spread out to cool.
When cooled, measure flour and quinoa into a large bowl. With your hands, gently toss together until blended, and quinoa appears the size of tapioca pearls. Add in baking powder, soda, spices and salt and mix thoroughly.
In another bowl, measure buttermilk, then whisk in syrup, egg, squash, oil and vanilla. Whisk together, then add to dry ingredients with coconut. Using a rubber spatula, gently fold ingredients together until incorporated. Do not overmix. Scoop into muffin tins, about 2/3 full and bake for 15-18 minutes, or until tops are browned and spring back when touched. Allow to cool in muffin pans for 15 minutes or so, then turn out onto wire racks to cool completely.
And without even realizing it, I’m more than halfway through NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month. It’s proven to be way easier than I anticipated, but with 4-1/2 years of archives to wander through and re-introduce, I’m never at a loss for material.
There’s just no point on grumbling when the first snow falls thick and hard. This is Minnesota and it’s just how life is here. I mean, look at those photos. How can you grumble about something so beautiful? Walking through the woods after a thick snowfall is to know peace and solitude and Nature at it’s finest. This is what we are. And as certain as the snow falls each year, it’s always followed by Spring. Always.
Today, as predicted, the snow is falling fast and furious. It’s heavy and wet and the roads are slick from what I’ve heard. But I have no agenda for today, no plans. There’s nothing to do but sit back, a content feline on my lap and take in the coming Winter. I love snow, as I love cross-country skiing. The more the better as far as I’m concerned. Last year we had a stellar winter in terms of snowfall. And I can only hope we get half as lucky this season.
I can’t wait to get out there.
My apologies for starting this post out using the word ‘Winter’ in the title. Those of us in the northern climes are still experiencing a gorgeous Fall- and the sunshine that we’ve had through the early part of November is dazzling. And so unexpected. November around here is equated with a dense gray expanse of sky that rarely seems to break. It’s a gloomy month, usually, and for the sun and blue sky to be greeting us each morning is a gift. A true weather gift. One that I am savoring with all my might.
But then I go and say ‘Winter’.
But bear with me friends, as you know I wouldn’t steer you wrong. Even with the still mild days of November to wrap around us, my mind is gearing up for cold. It’s inevitable, and I think people are taking bets around here on when the first real snowfall will drop from that leaden sky that we know so well. The first snow that sticks, snarls traffic, makes people grumble inside…. we know how it is around here. We may have resided here all our lives but there comes that first coating of white and it’s like folks have wiped any memory of it clear from their heads.
Like who could forget something like this?
Sorry, there I went and did it again.
But the thing is, it’s coming and when it does, and we wake on those chilly Winter mornings craving all forms of comfort food to fill our Minnesota bellies with warmth, what you should be making is this simple and delicious compote. It tops so many winter breakfast foods like it was meant to be, like the way Winter will eventually lead us to Spring. A spoonful in your Oatmeal is heavenly; a spread across your pancakes, waffles or french toast is worthy of your best food-lovin’ eye roll and exclamations of ‘Oh dear! This is good!’. It’s endlessly versatile and needs no special ingredients. And if you make it in your flannel jammies, with thick slippers on your feet while the furnace hums it’s way to warming your home, it might just make those Winter mornings a bit more pleasant.
And as Minnesota goes, in the wintertime, we need as much of that as we can get.
Winter Fruit Compote
1 medium tart apple, washed, cored and diced fine
1 c. chopped pecans
1/3 c. currants
1 T. butter
1/2 c. pure maple syrup
In a skillet over medium heat, melt the butter and add the apple. Saute for a few minutes until the apple is soft, then stir in the pecans and cook, stirring regularly, until the nuts are slightly toasted and fragrant. Pour in the maple syrup and reduce the heat to low. Cook, stirring occasionally until the maple syrup has been absorbed. Stir in the currants and heat through. Serve warm over pancakes or waffles. Will keep refrigerated for several days. If you can resist. Reheat in the microwave if desired. This tastes amazing if sprinkled with a light dusting of sea salt prior to serving. Something about that salty sweet crunch…..
Winter pears, like Anjou or Red or even the Bosc would make a good substitute for the apple in this. Change up the nuts, use raisins instead of currants, or add other dried fruit. Toss in some shredded coconut if it’s your thing. Or even chop up an orange, mix it with dried cranberries and chopped pistachios and a dash of cardamom for an exotic option. The possibilities are endless, people. Endless.
March is a fickle friend, isn’t it? On my birthday in 2007, we had a blizzard that left us buried under 18″ of snow. Way back in 1991, I recall it being 67 degrees on my birthday. This year? We had temps in the 40′s, plenty of warm sunshine and slush covering the ground as we made our way out for my celebratory dinner. March, the month that supposedly comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb, rarely seems to be able to make up it’s mind as to what it hands us. It’s the month where we officially hang up Winter, and turn to Spring, eyeing our wardrobe and wishing for the right weather to break out the lighter side of ourselves.
With the stretch of days drenched in gorgeous sunshine, and me fingering the short sleeve shirts in longing, there came yet another craving I haven’t known in some time, perhaps a harbinger of the changing season. It was the desire to not only shed the weight of winter clothing but the heavy and comforting draw of it’s food as well, replacing it with those that snap and crunch in their remarkable shades of green. I really wanted a salad.
Likely spurred on by the current issue of Saveur magazine, and it’s ode to the chopped salad- just in time for Spring!- I took one long glance at the Cobb Salad pictured and my mind high-fived my stomach, both in hearty agreement that it was indeed necessary to create. Right away.
The Cobb Salad was named for Robert L. Cobb, credited with inventing it at his famed Brown Derby restaurant in Los Angeles in 1937, and made up of chicken, bacon, avocado, blue cheese crumbles, tomato, hard cooked egg, chive, watercress, romaine and iceberg lettuces. It’s now a standard on so many menus, often in a wide array of options, most of them a far cry from the original version.
This time of year I tend to get a lot of food fatigue, and indecision about what my body is needing to eat. I’m tired of winter and it’s stews and braises, of it’s root vegetables and tubers, the lack of fresh options and choices. I want to wash the mittens, hats and scarves and then pack them away. I crave berries and peaches, bare skin and white wine. I am beginning to paw through the Spring clothes in my closet, wishing for the warmth to wear just one item, especially those bought on sale last Fall, many with price tags still attached. I think about pedicures and exposing my toes again. I yearn for the Markets to open, bearing tables of new potatoes, spring peas and the first tender bunches of spinach. The buckets of lettuce soon follow, overflowing in green, and mine for just a few dollars. Seed catalogs tempt me. I want summer foods, long warm twilights sipping rosé, a simple sheet thrown over me at night.
So the salad craving was not a surprise, nor pushed aside, even though the greens came from the store and lacked the flavor of the earth. I splurged on good Nueske’s bacon and burned some aromatic candles to freshen the house. Next time Nueske’s and I meet, it likely will be high summer, alongside crimson orbs of fresh garden tomato.
The salad served me well, filling the need for somewhat lighter fare, yet hearty enough to stick with me through the afternoon hours. The bacon doesn’t exactly make this the healthiest option, but it works for an occasional treat, and the mix of flavors just seems to work. I can’t say why the tang of blue cheese, smoky bacon, moist chicken and creamy avocado make for such a pleasing plate of flavor, maybe it’s the carnival of tastes going on at once, a culinary samba that relentlessly entertains your mouth. I sure know that I need waking up from the snow, hearty foods and sweaters, my metaphor of winter. My tastebuds seem to as well. Here’s to more salad, and increasing temperatures, all things Spring and sunshine.
This time of year it isn’t unusual to find the long winter shadows start to appear around early afternoon. With the swift approach of the Solstice, the darkness seems almost interminable. But the nice thought is, after Monday, the days grow progressively longer. And Spring will be three months away.
Are you one of those, at least those of us in the grasp of a northern hemisphere Winter, that feel the night descend so hard that the 7:00pm darkness can often feel like midnight? Like we need to be going to bed instead of finishing up the dinner dishes and thinking about how to manage the evening ahead? We’ve been plagued with that quite a bit at our house. And I’m never sure how to get past it except to just roll with the changing light and keep in mind that the tilt of the Earth always brings us back to warmer weather, dripping eaves and bare brown patches that miraculously change into green again. And up until recently, I never considered actually embracing that darkness. It was always about trying to get away from it. Then I read this essay by Jeanette Winterson. And I read it again. It struck a chord in me and suddenly the coming darkness that evening didn’t seem so daunting.
Winterson’s essay is all about the enjoyment of darkness for many things considered normal in our lives. She speaks eloquently of the effect of the night on love, cooking, thinking, creativity and all manner of human purpose. Most of it I’ve never considered at all, especially the cooking aspect, at least not in the way that she explains it.
She talks about how our culture has phased out the night, treating it more like failed daylight than a time of slowness and silence, which she urges us to acknowledge as a correction of the day. I especially loved how she talked about the slim hour of time where the day and night meet, where the darkness slowly envelops the light.
“City or country, that sundown hour is strange and exhilarating, as ordinary spatial relations are altered: trees rear up in their own shadows, buildings bulk out, pavements stretch forward, the red wrapper of brake lights turns a road into a lava flow.”
In the wintertime, this twilight, or “blue time”, as a friend of mine has coined, is my absolute favorite moment of the otherwise dark and chill that surrounds it. It’s perfect for reflection, a cup of tea and the rather soothing way that the shadows turn the snow from white to opal to purple and then finally to the deepest blue-black of a December night.
Sometimes, if we’re lucky enough to lift our eyes to the sky, we can be rewarded with sunsets like this:
Which, to my utmost surprise on this particular evening, not only painted the western horizon in this creative and colorful light, but tossed pastel tinted clouds all over the eastern sky as well….
And the sight of it all nearly gave me whiplash as I spun back and forth trying to catch the prime moments happening on both sides of me. With this kind of beauty ushering in our winter darkness, it almost seems a shame to turn on the lights and chase away the winter night. But that’s what we do. Most of the time anyway. For one night, while the guys were gone, I decided to defy that urge and do what Winterson suggests. Sit among the dark, with a fire and candles, and relax in the moment. I actually looked forward to the hours ahead. But I cheated just a little in terms of light though, loving the twinkling look of this bakers rack that resides in the corner of our kitchen.
Fortified after an intense outing on my cross country skis, I made sure that a simple dinner was on hand. A baked sweet potato and a cabbage salad seemed perfect for a solitary night with a few candles and the fireplace. I wished the evening was temperate enough to be out at the fire pit, enjoying the crackling of a true wood fire. Our gas fireplace as all the ambiance of watching a bunsen burner, but the warmth it puts out left the room cozy and comforting. The cats settled on the sofa with me, the contentment seemingly catchy. The flickering candles had a soothing effect on my thoughts, and I found that I had no urge to push through the hours until I could go to bed. It was a nice surprise to find that I really was enjoying myself. With 2010 bearing down on me, and a less than stellar 2009 fading in the rearview mirror, I welcomed the opportunity to reflect and look forward to starting something new again. I enjoyed my simple meal, and more importantly, my own solitary thoughts. I likely will repeat this in the coming months. Anything to break up the monotony of those long, dark hours. I hope it instills in me a new appreciation of these inevitable winter months.
“Food, fire, walks, dreams, cold, sleep, love, slowness, time, quiet, books, seasons – all these things, which are not really things, but moments of life – take on a different quality at night-time, where the moon reflects the light of the sun, and we have time to reflect what life is to us, knowing that it passes, and that every bit of it, in its change and its difference, is the here and now of what we have. Life is too short to be all daylight. Night is not less; it’s more.”
And it was more, for one night anyway.