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Posts Tagged ‘season’

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I was heading to the blackberry field at my favorite farm recently when I heard the old iron gate above swinging in the wind. It opened with an awkward squeak, then graduated to rich middle notes, then closed to a low baritone, jabbing its voice through the clear day and green landscape.

A 360-degree view of the August farm showed spring asparagus gone to seed and a few weeks off from another appearance, ripe blackberries, raspberries, corn, squash, and more crops beyond. I stood in the middle of LIFE, in exhilaration and exultation.

But the thing is, a farm isn’t a still frame of lush beauty. It’s hundreds of still frames that make up a continuous feature. A farmer knows that, but it just occurred to me that day when the gate whined back and forth, open and shut. A farm is the whole life cycle. It is both lovers’ bed and deathbed, nursery and graveyard.

In spring, the farm is fragile and palest green, a greenhouse full of teeny shoots a few weeks off from being planted because the soil is still too cold.

In late spring and early summer, it’s stretching its legs, testing boundaries, getting cheeky and rosy.

Now, in high summer, the farm is saturated with sun and rain and sugar and bite and intense color. Mid-life is when everything shines and bursts. Corn kernels pop when a fingernail is pressed into them. A ripe melon, at a single, infinitesimally small piercing, splits ahead of the blade wide open with a CRACK on the kitchen counter. Little potatoes dug from dusty soil are washed and roasted, and at first bite their skins, loose from the flesh, snap.

But as the crops lose the light bit by bit every day, that snap gives way to profound sweetness, softness, mellowness. Apples lose their sharp astringent bite, and are finally ready to pick. Tomatoes—boy, if the frost holds off and we can get tomatoes into September or even October, their flesh becomes deeper and richer than any July specimen. Green bell peppers turn lipstick red, and tender. Pumpkins become sweet and earthy. The farm is going to seed. It’s like everything is settling in to resignation, the innate knowing that the honeymoon is over, long over. But the farm is okay with it. We can actually taste that it’s okay with it.

Late Summer into Fall the farmer tosses spent squash and overripe tomatoes right into the fields to nourish them. Nothing is wasted; everything feeds everything else. Even the winter snow helps to fortify the soil. In Laura Ingalls Wilder’s day, in the 19th century, farmers called fresh snow “poor man’s fertilizer,” and sent the kids out with the plow to turn it under the soil. They didn’t know why it did the job so well, but they knew it did. Now we know it’s full of nitrogen, the most essential ingredient for healthy plant development.

So in August, in the wind, that old gate was the farm’s mouthpiece, singing, reminding me of how it all works. The baby’s squeak to the young adult’s call to the elder’s hum, it’s all a song. It gets sung every year. We’re moving into the baritone hum. Enjoy time’s pendulum and the old iron gate swinging closed, and the flavors that come with them. I think they’re the best of the year.

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Through the steady cold of winter we wait for the natural world to wake and grow green again. Many of us become disheartened by the stillness and the stark landscape, by counting the days until warm weather returns.

But the darkest season offers gifts none other does. It allows us to follow suit: We, too, are part of the natural world; and we, too, can be still, rest, and incubate buds of our own. This is our time to dream.

Emily Dickinson wrote, “There’s a certain Slant of light/Winter Afternoons,” and went on to describe it as ominous. Much as I love her, I have to disagree. It’s cheering to see that slant now, when light is scarce. I tip my chin up to it and close my eyes, warming my face.

Here are more of the singular comforts, and joys, of winter.

Snowy Sundays

Writing and daydreaming under my aunt’s vintage quilt as the snow piles up outside is coziness defined. Sipping the planet’s best hot chocolate sinks me into the cozy that much more.

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Comforting Sounds

Radiators releasing steam, freezing rain clattering against a windowpane in the middle of the night, a log fire popping and hissing—these sounds seem to make the warm indoors envelop us more fully and make us feel safe.

Winter Wonderlanding

The Scandinavians have a great saying: ‘There’s no such thing as bad weather—only bad clothes.’ They would know, and they have a point. For Christmas my mom gave me a balaclava—one of those all-in-one hood/scarf things. Wearing it together with fleece, my down jacket and long underwear made in Vermont (and they know from cold weather, too), I can walk in warmth for hours, in the still, frosty air mingling with the wood smoke wisping out of fireplaces all over town. Very Currier and Ives.

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Soaking in the Bath

Winter-chapped skin and muscles aching from snowball fights are soothed in a warm bath. Now is the season when I rummage through the bath products I’ve squirreled away, like that luscious bubble bath from Anthopologie that smells like sandalwood. I’ve always wanted one of those cast iron, clawfoot tubs that are so deep that the bubbles would come up to my chin. Until then, I’ll take baths in my ordinary tub this winter, a handful of lit votives on the floor, and my towel warming on the radiator. The feeling is pretty close to goddesslike just like this.

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Afternoon naps

Winter is a time to stretch out on, and wrap yourself in, things that are soft and obliging. On the weekends I plop down on the sofa with a book and my winter trifecta—old flannel pajamas from L.L. Bean, a faux fur throw and thick alpaca socks that I bought from a breeder in south NJ. Sometimes I doze off watching the fading afternoon light, the sky turning shell pink. When I wake up at twilight, the light, and snow, have turned otherworldly pastel blue.

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The Beauty of Snow

Speaking of snow, I love the delicate hieroglyphics that it, along with frost and wind, etches on the window panes. I dust the cakes I bake this time of year with powdered sugar just to imitate and celebrate snow. This morning I cut snowflakes and suspended them from my living room ceiling, the way I used to do in my nursery school classrooms. Looks just as cool.

Lighting Up the Night

When the faint daylight dies and the midwinter night becomes inky black, light a candle and gaze into its flame. It’s relaxing, almost hypnotic. Our ancestors spent their winters this way, too: looking into their cooking fires and into candlelight through hurricane glasses, wondering what the new year had in store for them, worrying about plans they’d made, imagining personal wishes coming true. Winter candlelight is a link to the past, into the collective, restless, hopeful heart of the human race.

Warm Kitchens

Our favorite cold-weather dishes warm and cheer us right through to the soul. It’s time for long-simmering Italian beef stew, soda bread with raisins and turkey noodle soup. This time of year I fantasize about making up two bowls of whatever it is I’m cooking: one for my stomach, and one for my chilly feet. Wrapping cold fingers around little earthenware crocks full of French onion soup, the kind with a toasted crouton on top that’s covered with bubbling Gruyere, suffices pretty well. These wintertime dishes also offer some of the best smells in the world.

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Staples of my winter kitchen

Fresh garlic

Chicken and beef broths

Dried sage and rosemary

Rigatoni

Bittersweet chocolate

Navel oranges

Walnuts

Organic milk

Molasses

Crystallized ginger

Lentils

Black kale

Tomato paste

On New Year’s Day I baked shepherd’s pie. I worked more slowly than usual, chopping the onions and carrots, browning the ground lamb, spooning the mixture into ramekins and layering mashed potatoes on top. It was surprisingly relaxing. Out of the oven they came, hot as winter is cold, asking me to slow down and enjoy every spoonful, this unique and special treat.

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Charlie Brown had a point when he said the holiday season can be kind of a letdown. Here’s a big portion of the planet spending December frantic, shooting for some magical feeling, a high, it seems to me, that will make all of this breathless marathoning worth it…and never quite finding the finish line.

Do you get that sense, too? Like we’re all reaching for something quite possibly unattainable, at least by the means we typically use (shopping, wrapping, cooking, decorating, schlepping)?

Parents of small children know the race, for the most part, is over by 7am on Christmas morning. And I bet they’d vote for going back to sleep until mid-January if they had the choice. Jews get eight nights, chosen as they are.  But they too might well feel that sort of wistful question mark after the last candle is lit.

It’s time for a reassessment already. As often—usually—overtaxed adults, I think it’s asking a lot of a holiday, and of ourselves, to push ourselves every year to exhaustion, reaching for a phantom high.

My posts this holiday season have emphasized cutting ourselves some slack and letting go of lunatic expectations that pummel us. I have one more point to make, and here it is: Even if that holiday high is out there, it would be over in a breath. That’s the nature of euphoria. Now ask if it’s worth it.

Contentment, now—that’s a different ballgame. Contentment doesn’t get the press that euphoria gets, but it lasts longer and is far more nourishing to the soul. So maybe that’s what we should go for.

Instead of hamster-wheeling ourselves into a frenzy from Black Friday to New Year’s Day, shooting for a high, let’s shoot for warmth. Coziness. Peace.

To wit: My mom’s sour cream coffee cake. It will not find the elusive pink suede booties your sister’s lusting after. It won’t keep your dog from chewing the little round bits of Styro left on the floor, courtesy of Best Buy. But Mom found the recipe in our local newspaper some 30 years ago and has been baking it in an ancient Bundt pan every Christmas morning for decades. It’s that good. It’s a step toward contentment…I promise you.

No chocolate chips in this puppy. Idiot-proof. (Want to know how much? When I was a teenager I started mixing up this batter, and 90% of the way through I realized I hadn’t been going by the directions, but had just been dumping the ingredients into the bowl, straight down the list. It still turned out perfect.) My mom adds walnuts to the filling; I thought, and still do, that they have no place in cake. I picked them out of every slice I ate and deposited them on the cake plate, and she’d eat them over the course of the day. It was a system that worked. But add them if you like them.

1 c butter, softened

2 c sugar

2 eggs

1 c sour cream

1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract

2 c all-purpose flour

1 tsp baking powder

1/4 tsp salt

1 c chopped walnuts (optional)

1 tsp cinnamon

1/4 c brown sugar, packed

Heat oven to 350. In a large bowl, cream butter and add sugar gradually, beating until very light and fluffy. Beat in eggs one at a time, very well. Fold in cream and vanilla. In a medium-sized bowl, sift the flour, baking powder and salt, and add this gradually to the butter mixture.

In a small bowl, combine nuts (if using), cinnamon, and brown sugar.

Pour half of the batter into a well-greased and floured Bundt pan or 9″ tube pan. (You can really use any pan that’s big enough to hold the batter. If you use a rectangular Pyrex, or a springform pan, as I do, just reduce the cooking time.) Sprinkle with 3/4 of the cinnamon mixture. Pour remaining batter on top, then sprinkle with remaining cinnamon mixture.

Bake about 1 hour or until a tester comes out clean (check it after 45 minutes, just to be safe). Let it sit on a rack until cool. De-pan it, dust with powdered sugar and put a sprig of fresh holly on it, as my mom does, or be a heathen like me, add nothing, and cut a big greedy slice for yourself.

This cake won honorable mention in the county fair a few years ago, and the judges’ notes read, “Add more filling.” They may be right. Double the filling if you want and see if you like it better. It won for the soft, dense, tender texture—sour cream blesses every cake this way. I made the cake in the picture with plain lowfat yogurt instead of sour cream, and lessened the sugar to 3/4 c, so it’s not as high as my mom’s, but the texture is pretty much the same.

In October I broke my collarbone, moved two weeks later, then had surgery, so I couldn’t tear around like a rabid ferret the way I always do during Christmastime. Which is why I think I came up with the above shattering realization that we have the power to make the holidays a letdown or not. All I know is that I made this humble cake on Christmas Eve, and was so excited for it that I actually toyed with the idea of putting it under the tree. Contentment this year came in the shape of a springform.

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