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Taking Stock, Making Stock

It is a new year, the height, or should I say depth of winter. As such, it is the time for both new beginnings and comfort foods. This two-sided seasonal coin seems to serve disparate agendas. On one hand we seek change in the form of resolutions, and on the other we yearn for the trusty, classic dishes like a hearty soup that define winter in the North.  

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Pot of New Orleans style chicken stew

Starting Fresh

At the start of every year, we give ourselves permission to analyze, to look over our past year and reflect upon successes and failures. Our society does this from the very personal up to the large-scale corporate and even governmental level. We aim to improve our lives, communities, businesses, country, and world.

We come down from the busy high of the holidays into the calm of a new year, and we yearn to take this time to reset ourselves. This practice stems thousands of years and numerous cultures, and it is perhaps driven by an innate need for redemption and a fresh start. So this is the time. Is there something you have been thinking about transforming in your life? Use this season as an opportunity for yourself.

The Coziness Factor

The other side of this winter coin is the fact that it is just plain cold outside. Really cold. This brings us into our homes. We crave warm and cozy foods, blankets, and sweaters.

My oven is always on for roasting meats or finishing a braise. The soup pot has taken up permanent residence on my stove. It seems that delicious beefy stews, bisques, and chowders have become a daily food. I roast bones and then create rich stocks that take hours of simmering to come into their own. The always classic French onion soup rises to new heights when made from this homemade beef stock. I really do tend to eat in a seasonal pattern. Soups like French onion, borscht, or ham and bean happen only in the chilly climes of winter.

Comfort Cooking

Even though hot foods do not in actuality heat us up from the inside out (our body works very hard to maintain its constant temperature), the act of cooking warms us. As we hover over a simmering pot of soup or hold a piping hot bowl to inhale the steamy aroma, we become warm. Whether the warming effect is literal or psychological, to me it makes no difference. I love hot foods on a cold day. They warm my soul. They tell my loved ones that I care for them, that I want to warm them up as well. There is nothing that says “I love you” more than a bowl full of chili on a chilly day.   

The word restaurant in French means “something restoring.” In the 16th century in France, restaurant was the word commonly used to describe an inexpensive soup that was sold on the streets of Paris. When an enterprising Parisian opened a shop where he made and sold soup, it was called restaurant. This is the origin of the current use of the word restaurants today.

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French onion soup with homemade beef stock

The parallel between restoring and soup holds forth in our mother’s chicken noodle soup served to us when fighting the flu or a cold. The funny thing is the rehydrating nature of the ingredients did help us mend.

These subzero temperatures are definitely good for something. Whether we are taking this time to improve a facet of our lives or simply to slow down and savor a cozy meal, the cold awakens a strength within us and reminds us what it means to be human.

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Savoring our sweet hygge

The snap and pop of a fire in the hearth, the twinkle of lights on the mantle, a steaming mug of cocoa, Wynton Marsalis playing a jazz version of “Winter Wonderland,” candles burning; these are the sights and sounds of hygge in December in the north. Cinnamon, cardamom, pine, nutmeg, apple, ginger, bread baking; these are the aromas that linger.

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A Scandinavian Christmas

In our house Nordic traditions include round after round of tender lefse coming off the grill, savory Swedish meatballs with lingonberries providing a sweet counter, a delicately carved rosewood crèche on the side table, the rich scent of Yulekake and cardamom buns baking in the oven, gingersnaps cooling on the counter. Smoked salmon, Jarlsburg cheese, and pâté made of goat cheese and dill served on thin crisps of rye bread. Glasses of eggnog or hot buttered rum are raised in toast.

Tis the season to be cozy and warm, to create hygge in our homes and lifestyle. Hygge is the Scandinavian (particularly Danish) way of simplifying to create a cozy sense of well being. Choosing the essential and eliminating the unnecessary. Sometimes the build up of to-do lists, parties, and the tasks that we take on to make the season that much more special actually detract from its beauty.

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Charming simplicity

The seasonal starkness has a beauty all its own. As I sit writing in the dusky dawn gazing out at the grey outdoor light and then at the flickering amber candle, I cannot help but think of my ancestors who hailed from above the Arctic Circle. Did they love this diminished daylight as much as I do? Cloudy skies the color of Tahitian pearls. Our ornament-laden Christmas tree virtually glows in this milky light.

What is it about the wintry north, where absence has a reverse effect of heightening our appreciation of what we do have? This is nature’s version of hygge. When the sun emerges on those crystalline December mornings, the crunch of snow beneath our steps is louder, the song of the ruby cardinal on a far off branch is music we dance to, the diamond-like sparkle of frost takes our breath away. I’ve often thought necessity inspires creativity. The need for warmth became the beautiful and intricate Norwegian sweater, where the more involved the Fair Isle design, the more layers of yarn used, resulting in an almost opulent but necessary coziness.

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Subtraction becomes resplendent multiplication. Friendships seem to matter more. We linger longer over coffee and conversation. Friends gather and sip from hot cups of soup. We roast and bake and share with others. The gratefulness on the faces of needy neighbors when presented with a loaf of bread fresh from the oven warms our souls more than any down jacket could.

Treasured tradition

The dark cold months focus our priorities. It seems that in the lush green of other seasons we venture into the unknown. We try new activities, taste new foods, travel to new places, establish new goals, or start new habits. But at the holidays, we treasure the tried, the true, the traditions that we hold dear. For me this means remembering the Christ Child’s birth, singing favorite carols, preparing time-honored foods, hearing the crackle of Ponderosa Pine logs burning in the fireplace, smelling the heady aroma of roasting meats, listening to Handel’s Messiah, or hearing the ringing sound of handbell choirs.

Music runs along the season as a common thread. Christmas tunes play everywhere. When walking down Main Street or in the grocery aisle, we are constantly serenaded. We are cheered. I find myself flitting from inspirational John Rutter choral pieces to the nostalgic Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, then on to the husky voice of Louis Armstrong or the peaceful sound of Laurance Jube playing his guitar.

Embracing the season 

Apart from the other times of the year, the cold winter tranquility stirs passion and a strong sense of fearlessness in our souls. We venture out into the brisk nights bundled up in our coats and boots, the biting winds and looming darkness unable to dampen our spirits. Then after a long, full day, we nestle into the warmth of our homes to soak in the sounds, smells, and beautiful sights that define the serenity of the season.

Winter, December, waiting, Christmas, laughter, darkness, stockings on the mantle, Advent candles, baby Jesus, cold, joy, warm sweaters, ice skating, Christmas concerts, red velvet, snow, white fur, Kransekake, light, bells, icicles, kindness, gingerbread houses, shearling slippers, cedar and holly garland. So many indispensable words, these words of the season.

This year I have whittled and parsed all the while clarifying. The essence of my own Christmas season becomes a marriage of the most unsuspecting companions. The pairings of cold and family leads to memories created. Elimination of the unnecessary makes for times all the more treasured thanks to their poignant simplicity. This is my holiday hygge.