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Posts Tagged ‘Doctor Who’

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Dusty dirt at a nearby orchard and half-eaten buffet selection.

Last week I learned there are kids in the world who have never touched soil. I actually stopped typing to reread the sentence when I saw it. It was within notes for an article I was writing on a school garden in Chicago.

Of course it makes sense; city kids know from sidewalks, not soil. But I had never thought about it. The teachers at the school reported that they loved seeing the wonder and amazement in their little students’ faces when the kids first put their hands into fresh, fragrant soil.

I was struck by this. For all of us in our very small town in the ’70s and ’80s, dirt was our silent partner. Digging in it with my sister to uncover the first tulip shoots in the spring. Landing in it when I fell off my bike. I don’t even remember us brushing it off. And Lord knows we didn’t wash off honeysuckle flowers before slurping up the nectar inside. We lived by the old expression, ‘You eat a peck of dirt before you die.’ There weren’t really any boundaries between we kids and dirt; it was a part of us.

People who love to cook have a personal relationship with dirt, too. In the western part of New Jersey the earth is clay soil, which retains almost as much water as my ankles do every month, and needs additional work and ingredients to make it arable.* On the opposite side of the state, close to the ocean, we can’t dig more than a foot down without hitting a mysterious granular substance that looks like this:

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Three guesses.

Which is fine; lots of great stuff grows in it, and allows water to drain away, easily. And which also leads me to wonder, in the Doctor Who-tainted kind of way that I do, how much what’s below us influences us. Does the kind of soil we walk on have any bearing on who we turn out to be?

Coastal types are generally known to be a relaxed lot—maybe because food there has always grown fairly easily in the receptive soil. They also sometimes earn a rep for flakiness.**

Inland, where it takes more work to grow food because the soil is sticky and challenging, the rep is about stubbornness. And also generosity.***

Yes, there are exceptions to the above. I’m generalizing. But still: I can’t help but think an enormous part of what we’re made of is due to the nature of what’s under our feet.

Maybe if life is simpler due to soil that’s receptive to raising crops, it helps to foster relaxed, if sometimes complacent, people. And if life is tougher due to soil that requires more effort to raise crops, maybe it fosters stubborn but giving people, those who go by an implicit ‘we’re all in the sticky together, and we have to work together’ policy.

Then there’s the sidewalk crew, the kids who have limited or no access to soil. What are the losses and gains, how much does a concrete barrier factor into what they’re made of? Into what they become?

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Potato trying to look like a rock. Didn’t work. It was delicious.

Back down to earth.

I would bet the teachers at the inner-city school above would argue that soil affords kids the chance to learn that the world is bigger than they thought. And deeper. And messier.

I’d agree and add that we should get to know soil for the most basic of reasons: because it is always there, whether we can see it or whether it’s beneath the sidewalk, and therefore unifies us. Because it’s where all life starts, and grows, and ultimately ends. Soft, sticky, or hidden, it belongs to everyone. Kids should get the chance to wear it, like we did growing up. We should know where our food comes from. We should know where we come from.

What I wouldn’t give to have been there the day those kids stuck their hands into it, and got good and messy. I need to find an inner-city school and bring the kids some dirt.

*It’s also Fern’s last name from Charlotte’s Web and she, appropriately, was a farm girl. That E.B. White was a sly dude.

**Where are my keys?!

Kidding. But I couldn’t tell you my license plate number at gunpoint.

***All of the mid-westerners I have ever met have been unfailingly warm, giving, and unguarded. If I met a jerk who said he was from Ohio, I’d keep eating and request his birth certificate.

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It’s entirely possible* I’ve been watching too much Doctor Who, but as I picked honeysuckle this morning I wondered whether a plant growing in a particular place becomes imbued with the spirit and motivations of the people who spend time there.

It’s a sly sideways view of terroir, the ancient notion that says what’s produced in a certain area is the result of a confluence of factors that include sun, rain, soil, and more. The product, whatever it is, absorbs the qualities inherent in that particular environment. This gives it a singular flavor, one that cannot be duplicated elsewhere.

Many, many examples support this. There are San Marzano tomatoes, first developed in Italy. They’re prized among chefs, who attribute their intense richness to the volcanic soil in which they were grown. Connossieurs in India scoff at American-grown basmati rice (‘Texmati’), saying fragrant, long-grained basmati rice is not the same if grown outside India. Grass-fed New Zealand lamb has unsurpassed flavor and texture. I could go on.

If this is true, if tomatoes and rice and lamb can carry within them tangible components from their environments, how far-fetched is it to imagine they can carry intangible ones as well?

My favorite small farm is a half hour south of me. The food they grow is lovely. But I drive out there just as much for the serenity that wraps around me with the wind in those fields, for the peace that’s cultivated along with the English garden peas. I go because I know the integrity of the farmer and his family and staff. That integrity means their produce is more than an itemized scale of nutrients. It’s food plus a great deal of heart. And yeah, it tastes like it. At least to me.

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A hot water and sugar treatment. It’s like Elizabeth Arden for flowers.

Another example. Native nations in the U.S. often wore animal skins, bone, and feathers—not to be decorative, but because they believed in doing so they would take on characteristics of those animals. And who couldn’t use extraordinary strength (buffalo), regenerative powers (bear), and shrewdness (coyote)?

Let’s take it one step farther and throw people into the mix. I know I am the product of my many manufacturers. They include the food I ate, the sea-and-lake misty air I breathed, and the trees I played under as a kid. But they are also my parents, my teachers, my friends, the good and bad words, the wisdom and the idiocy. They all formed me as much as the pasta I ate. All were my terroir, and I’d wager so were yours.

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I’m mostly pasta, though.

Back to honeysuckle. It’s an invasive and grows almost everywhere there’s dirt and something to climb. But I still shopped around before I found my favorite place to pick the flowers. Didn’t want to pick too close to a parking lot, junkyard, high-traffic road, or residential yard. That’s about exhaust fume and pesticide pollution. But I’d equally dismiss flowers grown on perfect, organic public lands close to a contentious family, or near the home of someone who routinely chooses nastiness over kindness. It’s one of the benefits of living in a small town; information like this is easy to come by.

Tell me this isn’t the ideal spot: a fence maybe 12′ by 30′, and in between, a solid, opaque wall of flowers. If this honeysuckle hedge had eyes it would have within its view our little baseball field, train station, playground, and lake. Hundred-year-old trees shade it east and west, twice a day, and the rest of the time it’s blessed with full sun. All day long the flowers witness, and pick up the good vibes of, pick-up baseball games, kids on swings, canoers, dog-walkers, and families meeting tired commuters, the latter of whom always take a big breath when they step off the train.

It’s not all ice cream there, of course. Kids will get mad at other kids and yell, ‘No fair!’ Commuters have to go to work, as well as come home from it. There’s bad with the good. But that’s as it should be; and anyway, the good far outweighs. Even the honeysuckle flowers come in two different colors (orange and yellow), have two different flavors, and grow in pairs. A little of this and a little of that. Both are required for a well-rounded syrup.

It could all be in my head, this entire-environs theory of mine. But I don’t think so.

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On the below, which I dreamed up kind of out of nowhere: I liked the idea of pairing honeysuckle with almond, as they both share floral flavors. The chocolate garnish was inevitable.

1) I made the syrup.**.

2) Next came the custard. I used Martha’s vanilla pudding recipe. I left out the vanilla, and instead, once cool, I stirred in about 2/3 cup of syrup.

3) For the tart shells, I also used Martha’s pate brisee recipe, and substituted 1.5 cups of almond flour for part of the all-purpose flour called for. Baked it in cute little tart pans.

4) Then I piled up the custard into the shells, shaved some really good-quality bittersweet chocolate (Noi Sirius Pure Icelandic Chocolate, from Whole Foods) into the middles, toasted a few sliced almonds, and added those to the top, too. Made a heckuva good teatime treat today, along with the extra custard I ate out of the bowl with a rubber spatula.

(Did I say ice cream in a honeysuckle post? Honeysuckle…ice cream! Next on the hit parade. :))

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Honeysuckle Custard Tarts with Salted Almond Shells, Shaved Chocolate, and Toasted Almonds. Righteous ensemble.

*Let’s call it likely and move on.

**For more on the embarrassingly simple process, see last year’s post.

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This is a Buddha burger, from the very popular and much missed ‘grease trucks’ at Rutgers University. It’s a cheeseburger with pork roll, french fries, mayonnaise, and a bunch of other things I’m better off not remembering. I wouldn’t have done this until recently. Then I did, and life was so much prettier.

In one of my very favorite scenes in the new incarnation of the Doctor Who series, little Amelia Pond finds the ravenous Doctor in her backyard and tries to offer him something that will satisfy his hunger. Matt Smith’s charmingly loopy Doctor says he loves apples; she gives him one, he takes a huge bite and then spits it out, calling it disgusting. Same goes for beans, yogurt, bacon…(this goes on). Then he tries fish fingers dipped in custard and they have a winner. Obviously, I mean, who wouldn’t go for that?

Amelia doesn’t understand why he is changing his mind so much. But the well-versed* Doctor Who viewer does: the Doctor regenerates from time to time, and when he does, he is a spinning roulette wheel; every characteristic—physical, emotional, everything—is in flux. When he’s in this state, his food preferences are like that of others in flux—a pregnant woman, or a child, for example. ‘New mouth, new rules,’ he says.

darker asparagus

Asparagus, which I never liked until maybe 10 years ago. Roasted or bust!

I wasn’t ridiculously finicky as a kid—I know kids who will eat nothing but processed cheese slices and frozen waffles—but I decided to abhor certain things and stuck to it. My dad once handed me a morsel of something fried, said, ‘It’s a french fry,’  and watched. That was the tell: if it had in fact been a french fry, he wouldn’t be watching for my reaction. He knew I liked french fries. I handed it back to him. Turns out it was calamari.

No. No way. Not when I was eight.

Another time I asked if whatever he was making had mushrooms in it. He said it did but, ‘You can’t even taste them!’ My reply: ‘Then why did you put them in?’ This is a tough question to answer if you want to hang on to your original statement.

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Pizza with ricotta, caramelized onions and figs. The second two were no-go’s as a kid.

Environment also plays a factor. We all know kids who wouldn’t even sit at the same table as pasta fra diavolo at home, but if somewhere else, will gobble it blissfully.

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Pasta made with the black ink of a squid and fresh garlic. A horror, both, until maybe five years ago.

But more interesting to me than environment is how time and experience alter our food preferences. We’ll pick the raisins out of everything we see at 11, but at 31 we’ll double them in our cookie recipe.

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Sandwich with tuna and anchovy. First fish, fine. Second, forget it—until I was in my twenties. Now I think almost anything can benefit from anchovy except maybe strawberry shortcake.

For all of the foods I didn’t like as a kid, there are a few I liked then that I’m not crazy over now. Milk chocolate is one. Unless it’s great quality—smooth, not gritty tasting like Hershey’s—I stick to dark. And I hated dark as a kid.

In my wild, misspent youth I also ate chem lab projects like Pixie Stix and those freaky little candies attached to long strips of paper. Do you remember those? The paper stayed attached to the backs after you ripped them off the roll. Fiber and artificial flavors—quelle deal!

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Horseradish, another no-man’s land until maybe my 30s. Fresh grated and kept in vinegar, it’s surprisingly sweet and works in dozens of ways.

My food tastes changed toward the spicy after I had an ulcer. Wrote about it. That esophogeal burden prohibited me from eating citrus, chocolate, and more, but especially from eating anything with so much as a fleck of caliente. When the ulcer was gone, I hit the hot pepper full force—much more than I did before the ulcer.

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The sausage sandwich, that favorite of my Italian family, and its spiciness made it out of the question for me until I was well into adulthood.

New mouth, new rules.

How have your food tastes changed? What did you used to scorn but now love, and the other way around?

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Mushrooms plain grossed me out as a kid. I didn’t eat them until I was in my mid-twenties, when my friend ordered them on a pizza and I was too hungry to pull them off. Now I can’t get enough of any variety.

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When I was a kid, tomatoes always tasted like sodden gym socks to me. I suspect many still do. Then I tried heirlooms. Home run.

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The only nut I’d eat as a kid was peanut butter. Not peanuts, mind you—but peanut butter. Now I love them all. This is a cupcake with my homemade gianduja (Nutella) in the batter and on top.

*Euphemism. Obsessed is closer to accurate.

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The past month was at once great (crewed two shows back to back and had a raging good time) and hellacious (less-than-enjoyable correspondence with my more-than-schmuck-like landlord). So, looking back at July, I’d sum it up with ‘tiring’.

There are those who, when tiring happens, get a seaweed wrap and later curl up on the futon with the remote and ‘Supernatural’.  And there are those who take naps to catch up on sleep and then regroup by digging in the dirt.*

Recently I saw the post on Silverton Farms’s (Toms River, NJ) Facebook page that customers were invited to dig for potatoes. My heart raced. I don’t know why I’m wired up like this, but I am. I couldn’t wait.

Elena, dauntless future farmer, handed me a plastic bucket and showed me where to look for russets. (That’s a dried brown potato stem in the pic above.) And after the woman picking blackberries** in the nearby patch had left, I had the area to myself.

The thing that surprised me most was how simple it was. I thought I’d be DIGGING digging. Instead, I more or less moved dirt around a bit and there the little guys were.

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Another young worker there, Christine, loves harvesting potatoes. She once grinned, ‘You get to dig like a dog.’ But for me it was like hunting for Easter eggs, and so surprising that I kept giggling. You keep finding them, you see. Some were the size of plums and others as small as hazelnuts. It’s a crack up. It’s hard to stop.

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I did stop once my fingernails were completely caked with dirt. Great feeling, but turns out the next part was almost as good a time as picking. Elena pointed across the yard to where I could wash my hands—not at a sink, but at a pump. Red, and positioned next to an ancient barn, like in a production of The Miracle Worker. ‘Pull down the handle and take off the hose before you wash,’ she said. And I thought I was low tech.

As I washed my hands and dried them on my jeans, Tom, who owns the place, ambled over. ‘Makes good drinking, too,’ he said. ‘Is this well water?’ ‘Yep!’

I leaned over and pulled down the handle a little too hard, half expecting to be blasted back across the Parkway, but I wasn’t. And the water really was fantastic—like drinking from a pond in the middle of the Appalachians.

When I got home I set the oven at 425 degrees F. Then I washed Toms River dirt off a few potatoes, cut them up, tossed them with olive oil, and set them on a parchment-lined cookie sheet to be oven baked. Here they are pre-chopping. The droplets look cool in shadow.

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I amuse easily.

Then I put them in the oven for 15 or so minutes, then tossed them a bit, then put them back in for another 15 or so. I like ’em pretty brown and toasty. They go on a plate and are sprinkled with kosher salt. Then, intensely creamy on the inside, some popping their skins as you bite into them, they’re eaten—quickly enough that I didn’t take a picture.

*Normal I ain’t. Oh, and then I watch Doctor Who.

**…while inexplicably wearing fancy little flats. I will never understand how women can go to a farm to pick produce and yet insist on looking like Grace Kelly from the ankle down.

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Gonna be even purtier when they’re tipsy.

The first thing I want to say is WOW, and the second thing I want to say is grazie. You sent recipes from as close by as across the lake and as far away as South Africa. I selected 25 of them. Stoked doesn’t come close!

I chose the recipes for this project after having exhaustively researched the origins and ingredients for each, creating a map across my studio wall with pins stuck in various countries, burning up Google, and whipping up a spreadsheet outlining…okay, no, that never happened, it’s more like I was just mouth-open intrigued by every one. That’s pretty much all of the rhyme and reason involved here. Some recipes are ones I’ve never tried before and have always wanted to, some are ones I’ve never heard of, and some are classics. And I’ve never made any before, which was a major selling point. Some of you sent more than one recipe. That’s cool. I’m a game kind of girl.

As I make each recipe I’ll be documenting the whys, wherefores, and holy-craps here. Along those lines, come on and cook one recipe or all with me. When you do, write in and tell me how it went. I think one of the best ways to get under the skin of a country and its people is to taste its native cuisine. Food and the stories that accompany it can be transporting. They can carry us to another time and place as well as or even better than an airplane can—or in some cases, a time machine.* Your kitchen is your cockpit. This will be an education for all of us.

I’m still waiting on an official go from some of you, and some I’m not sure I can swing,** but here are my choices.

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Soft-Boiled Eggs with Dippy Soldiers

Curry-baked Chicken with Vegetable Curry and Green Pea Rice

Jenny Davies

jennyeatwellsrhubarbginger.blogspot.co.uk

*

Melon Jam

Peach Jam with Ginger

Octopus with Pasta

Katerina Papaspiliopoulou

Athens, Greece

*

Sauerbraten

Kay Coppola

West Long Branch, NJ

USA

*

Fried Zucchini Flowers with Mozzarella and Anchovy

Daniela Cassoni

Rome, Italy

*

Eggs Daffodil

Louis Rousseau

Santa Cruz, CA

USA

*

Toad of Toad Hole

Cheese Marmite Muffins

Mike Batho

Manchester, England

*

Applesauce Cake

Plum Pudding sauce

Kim Raynor

Wanamassa, NJ

USA

*

One-Gallon Daviess County Kentucky Burgoo

Mary B. Goetz

Owensboro, KY

USA

*

Oatmeal Cardamom Chocolate Cookies

Anita Burns

Corona, CA

USA

*

Homemade Maraschino Cherries

Linda Lavalle

New York, NY

USA

*

Rose Liqueur

Ladyfingers

Letizia Mattiacci

Umbria, Italy

*

Turkish-Inspired Leek Meatballs

Liz Reuven

kosherlikeme.com

*

Cornbread with Warm Buttermilk and Honey

Constance Moylan

USA

*

TMC Chicken POMOrado with Habanero

TMC Baked Rabbit with Mustard and Habanero Glaze

Johnnie Walker

Logan County, CO

USA

*

Grilled Pimiento Cheese

Sarah Lansky

Sarasota, FL

USA

*

Malva Pudding

Sauce

Richard Key

Ocean Basket N1 City Mall

South Africa

*

Hoppin’ John

Weena Perry

Keyport, NJ

USA

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Oh, and…

If you or any home cooks you know have authentic recipes from Asia, Australia, South America or other parts of Europe or North America, please hit me up at mcproco@gmail.com. The thought of cooking myself around the world gets me really jazzed. And I think we established long ago that I’m just a mite cracked in the head, so I might as well give in to it.***

*It’s true, but it’s also a gratuitous Doctor Who reference. So you know.

**Whether I will make the rose liqueur, for example, depends on whether I can find a sweet-tasting, unsprayed bush. And it has to be on public property, because making the recipe after having avoided a felony charge will only make it that much more enjoyable. I’ve tasted petals from about six different wild bushes that range from neutral tasting to bitter. Cross them fingers for me.

Cropped beach rose

Lettucey. Bummer.

***Two concussions strong!

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Three guesses what color the bottom of the pan used to be.

There are times when making desserts at home is an enjoyable, seamless pas de deux with the kitchen. Other times, since I’m a human animal and prone to mistakes, it’s a sloppy free-for-all. And on some occasions, it’s a debacle of lasting splendor, the kind that never loses its mojo, no matter how many years pass or how often you tell the tale.

I love writing about kitchen disasters because no matter where my ball-up falls on the above scale, I feel it’s worth a recap. And it’s not like I have anything else to show for the time spent in the kitchen.

Yesterday I burned a batch of caramel. Later, as I retraced the precise steps taken in its assassination, I was reminded of all of the messes I’ve achieved in my life. They felt to me like a corrupt version of Candyland, and escalated to the following:

Roll the dice. Four. Hooray! You thought your sister still had your one-quart All-Clad at her place, but it turns out she gave it back to you after Easter dinner. Crap. She still has the lid. But you don’t need it for this. You may proceed with the recipe!

…Seven. Oh, bad, bad. The cream-colored mixture calls for a certain size pan, which you are in fact using, and yet the mixture still bubbles over onto the stove, making menacing hissing noises and spilling onto your cream-colored linoleum floor, creating a hot, increasingly tacky, invisible Mississticky River across your kitchen. Two steps back.

…Three. You’re wearing shoes, so there’s that.

…Four again. Joy! You’ve made it across the Mississticky, and you used all but one napkin to clean up the kitchen floor. Take a side trip to the Happy Chocolate Trail, and eat a piece of chocolate to celebrate your extraordinary resourcefulness.

…Snake eyes. Appropriate. Hopped-up on caffeine. Problem. You move too quickly and drop a bowl placed carelessly near the stove. Take three steps back for the colorful expletives it inspires.

Not this one. I just didn't have any other bowl pictures.

Bowl dropping leaves a large slice in your floor, requiring several embarrassing calls to the super and resulting in the loss of your security deposit.

…Five. Wait. Can it be? Despite this wake of destruction, I’ve made it to the Waiting Buttered and Parchmented Pan of Bliss?!

The recipe is finished. At least until tomorrow when you have to unearth it from the Pan of Bliss and cut it into pieces. Use that last napkin in the house to dab your tears of gratitude, put on your favorite fuzzy socks, and go watch Doctor Who.

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This is the most trying time of year. No doubt. As far as sunlight goes, we’re on the other side of winter; if we can make it through January, we’ll be out of the woods. But the landscape here on the U.S. east coast is still dreary, and the air is still bleak, only to get bleaker before daffodil season. As the days begin to lengthen, the cold begins to strengthen, as the saying goes. Now what?

Well…as long as we still have a couple of months until springtime (a groundhog’s yet-unknown prediction notwithstanding), I vote we pass the time by having fun. And by that I mean having treats—experiencing something every day that guarantees us a smile. Making a point to doing this at least until daffodils do it for us.

Treats can be food, but there are dozens of others I can think of. They’re personal, to be sure; an hour of Grand Theft Auto on the upstairs TV, with the door shut behind you, may spell bliss for you. For someone else, it’s a Sunday nap, cat curled up next to you, sunlight streaming across your legs, the sound of the radiator popping and hissing.

A treat is anything that makes your heart swell, anything that makes you want to splash around in it like Labrador in a kiddie pool. A color. A sound. A smell. What makes you feel 100% in the moment?

Photography does it for me. Four out of five senses gratified in one fell swoop. I get a bang out of putting on my snow boots now and trekking around, looking for beautiful low light or color or patterns in a wet sycamore or snow.

The beach, just a couple of blocks away, is desolate and gorgeous in winter. This shot was taken last February, in the late afternoon light.

This time of year offers more challenges for photographers (and athletes, and all outdoor types), but I have also found opportunities not to shoot the same old thing, not to be cliche, when the light and landscape are so spare. The same stuff you walked past last August doesn’t look the same now. It’s kind of cool.

In Scandinavia, people crave winter. They wait for summer to pass so they can jump into the winter sports they’ve either invented or perfected: skiing, ice skating, ski driving, or ski-joring—that’s fastening your big pooch to a harness, tying a belt around your waist, putting skis on, and letting him cruise you around the neighborhood. Apparently there are groups springing up here in the States, devoted to this most awesome idea. And after a day out in the elements, the Norse have a sauna—their lifeblood.

Doctor Who is a nighttime treat for me, a new one (okay, yes, I’m a late arrival, mock me). I borrowed DVDs of the modern series and am enjoying Chris Eccleston’s impish grin, the cheeseball special effects, and hearing Billie Piper say things like, “Nine-een-ay-ee-seven” (1987).

Back to food, because 1) I can’t veer too far from that topic for long and 2) cooking treats, and eating them, get me through these winter days pretty well.

I know many of us are trying to ease back from holiday overindulgence now, but that’s not I’m talking about when I say ‘treat’. I mean eat healthy most of the time, and allow yourself something yummy from time to time. Being good to yourself is good.

Tonight I’m writing this while checking on my vanilla fudge, which is cooling on the counter. It’s a gift to bring to a party tomorrow, and the smell in the place right now is rich and sweet, warming up this winter night.

Then there’s teatime. A centuries-old institution based on having a civilized treat in late afternoon—why did we ever diss this notion? I love my version: eating really high-end bittersweet chocolate buttons in the teeny cloud-covered bowl I got at a Ben & Jerry’s in D.C., and drinking milk through a straw stuck in the carton. Anglophile I may be; civilized, not so much.

My neighbor, in his late eighties, makes himself blueberry pancakes in his small, not-even-slightly-updated kitchen every Sunday morning without fail. Endearing creature of habit that he is, I suspect he has done so since the mid-fifties when he moved into town. He knows treats are there for the taking, and he makes a point to incorporate them into his life every day.

Life is supposed to be fun. If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong. Even in the winter.

It’s getting late, and the vanilla fudge is finally done. Here it is in the fridge, where it will wait in the cold and dark until morning. Just like us.

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