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The Winter Blues

It is a hazy day, one of those calm, icy days where our souls can take a deep sigh of relief. Today is a needed respite from the frigid climes we have endured this winter. In the past few weeks, we have seen many twelve degrees below zero double wool sock days. Today, one pair of wool socks will do.

The ice on the sidewalks has been so thick and hard that the ice cleats attached to my winter boots have had a hard time poking through the ice to provide the grip I need when out walking the dog. I end up walking in the soft snow along the edge of side streets rather than chugging through snow banks.

It is mid-winter in the north country. Storms plow through with magnificent force. Snow. Ice. Wind. Cold temps. Blizzard conditions. 

Blue Food

My best defense against this frigid situation is to counter all the dreariness with the winter blues. Using every blue arrow in my quiver, I am replacing what could potentially be a blue season with a blue menu. I am stocked up. Stashed in every nook and cranny of my kitchen is blueberry basil kombucha, huckleberry beer, blueberry açaí ale, lavender melon kombucha, blueberries and deep blue grapes, blue cheese,  grape jam, even blue potatoes. Blueberry pomegranate smoothies are a daily breakfast fare. Bluefin tuna, Blue Diamond almonds, Blue Mission figs. We’ll celebrate with savory and sweet blueberry pizzas. Just to make sure all my bases are covered, I have a blue and white can of Snowstorm beer on hand. 

A Time of Clarity

You ask why I’m fighting white fury with blue bounty? I say why not? For many, this post holiday season can be cold, lonely, depressing, and filled with discarded New Year’s resolutions. Why not do something bold and intentional to make it both fun and interesting? Or use the extra time in your schedule to whittle down the flotsam in your closets? Or do both.

For me, this is a clarifying season. A time to clean, to organize. This is the opportune time to do all those indoor projects I was too busy to do during the gardening or holiday seasons. When my schedule clears, so does my mind. So I take advantage of this to do projects that perhaps take more focus. 

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Blue foods

Winter Bounty

Let’s get back to food, shall we? The new year tends to be a time of new beginnings for our personal health and well being. We come off a December of feasting and want to corral the beast we call diet. This is actually a great time to start this endeavor. The grocery stores are replete with nutritious winter fruits and vegetables. Ruby grapefruit and blue potatoes, mangoes and kumquats, figs, pears, persimmons, pomegranates, mushrooms of all kinds, microgreens, and sprouts, beets, Brussels sprouts, onions, and carrots. The list goes on. 

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Roasted blue fingerling potatoes with Maitake mushrooms

All these foods contain nutrients such as antioxidants and phytochemicals. From anthocyanins in blueberries to plenolics and carotenoids found in citrus fruit, winter fruits and vegetables do not play second fiddle to their summer counterparts in the nutrition department. You can walk into the produce section of your grocery store and choose with abandon, knowing that as you choose and eat the rainbow, you are benefiting your health. 

Researchers have studied pockets of centenarians around the globe and examined the practices and circumstances surrounding this phenomenon. Several commonalities have been noticed, including but not limited to a vegetable based diet, stress management, regular exercise, and a priority placed on family and elders. These population pockets have been fittingly dubbed Blue Zones.

Cooking a Blue Meal

Here is my blues interpretation. I am roasting blue fingerlings, sautéing Maitake mushrooms in butter and garlic. Then I toss mushrooms with the crusty potatoes and sprinkle it all with truffle salt and freshly ground black pepper. A fluffy tousle of microgreens makes me wonder if the meal is having a bad hair day. A tapenade of Kalamata olives served on seedy crackers and topped with grape jam and Gorgonzola cheese adds another dimension to the meal. 

Earlier I threw together some pizza dough, and now the creativity flies as I roll out small rounds and dress them up with blueberries, prosciutto, crème fraîche, heirloom tomatoes, pears, shallots, pea sprouts, wild mushrooms, basil, red onions, truffle salt, black pepper, fresh mozzarella pearls, and parmigiano reggiano. Each combination of ingredients piques the palate in a unique way. Once you know the basics of a perfect crust, the art of delicious pizza is just a matter of building flavor with great ingredients.

A Sweet Finale

For a sweet capstone, I’ve assembled personal galettes filled with crème fraîche, pear slivers or plump blueberries, and blue cheese. These freeform tarts start with a buttery, flaky crust rolled out paper thin. I cut these out using a small bowl as a template. After spreading the crème fraîche, I scatter fruit and cheese over top and then sprinkle on vanilla-scented raw sugar to add a little crunch and sweetness. These tarts are always a great option because the ingredients that top them are flexible based on your pantry, the season of the year, and the rest of your menu. The two versions I have chosen are a sweet-savory counter and will be the perfect finish to a celebratory meal. 

To complete the picture, favorite Blues tunes are the musical backdrop. This is turning out to be quite the party after all. So, while the weather outside is frightful, my escapade into fending off the winter blues with the winter blues is delightful. And delicious.

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Coffee Brewed

All we want to do these cool, winter days is curl up with a hot mug of freshly brewed coffee. With the morning news. In a Yeti mug as we go out the door to work. Meeting friends at a coffee shop. Weak church brew in the narthex on Sunday mornings. Espresso and chocolate truffles after dinner. When is it not a good time for coffee?

The Many Faces of Coffee

It can be made as simply as the “dirty stick coffee” we would make when hiking in the mountains. With this method, we mix water and grounds and place them in a pot over a campfire and stirred with a stick (hopefully not a dirty one) from the nearby forest. Coffee also takes on an artform created by a master barista such as the sage latte made by Avery Burke of the Temporarium in San Francisco. In this drink deemed by many to be the world’s most complicated, he starts by frosting the rim of the cup in pomegranate molasses, curry powder, and cayenne pepper. This drink then involves cream steeped in blackened (a blowtorch is involved here) sage leaves and cream, anise, and brown sugar then poured over espresso. Coffee can include ingredients from all the food groups, from brown butter to pumpkin to hazelnut to cinnamon.

Straight Coffee

So whatever happened to plain ol’ coffee? Straight up, hot, and black? Well, that’s out there too. Sometimes as a pour over, other times a cold brew, French press, or Chemex, only a few of the many methods of brewing pure, black coffee. Last year I attended a series of coffee tasting events called cuppings. These are much like a wine tasting.

Single origin beans from a specific country, region, and/or farm are brewed at an ideal temperature and for a specific length of time to show off the coffee’s best traits. Cuppings include smelling, swishing the drink across the taste buds, and then spitting it out (which, of course, I could never bring myself to do). In places such as these, you can appreciate the taste of beans from Guatemala versus Ethiopia and how fermentation, rainfall, or elevation affect the flavor of the drink. Furthermore, you can hear stories of the hard working farmers who toil in all sorts of conditions to bring us the most delicious beans possible.

At its Finest

My many rich experiences with this drink have inspired me to slow down and smell the process. To appreciate what goes into a great cup. The aroma of the freshly ground beans or the steaming richness of the elixir poured from my French press to my tall pottery mug. As with so many other things in life, we can drink coffee, or we can savor it. I first dipped my toes into this proverbial coffee stew by drinking conventionally percolated grocery store brew.

As time progressed so did my palate. Mostly this happened gradually as the coffee culture in our society developed. I do, however, have some hallmark memories of firsts. For example, the first time I walked into the original Dunn Bros. on Grand Avenue in St. Paul, Minn., and smelled beans roasting in their massive Probat roaster. Or the time I sipped my first perfectly crafted espresso, crested with just the right amount of crema. I was standing at a espresso bar just feet from the Duomo in Florence, Italy. Those Italians…and their coffee…

The Cup

One can’t leave the topic of coffee without also discussing mugs. Everyone has their favorite size and shape. Mine tend to be tall, narrow at the top to keep the drink hot, and hand crafted. On the other hand, I’m also drawn to ones that carry poignant messages such as the simple heavy white ones with “call your mother” inscripted on the side. Maybe you use vintage cups given to you by your grandmother or ones collected on a particularly memorable trip. Whether it’s squat and wide to show off a talented barista’s design in the froth or sturdy with a tight lid to bring on a car trip, we all seem to have a preference.

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For me, as much as I love my coffee brewed in just the right way and as much as I like drinking it out of a mug of my choosing, the most important thing about this drink is who we drink it with. As interesting as the history and the story, coffee is simply the vehicle, or rather the impetus that brings people together. Family, loved ones, friends. In your kitchen, on your front porch, or on the patio of your local coffee shop. It’s the conversation over the drink that’s the memory created. Enjoying coffee you love with people you love. That is the good life.

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Early Summer Bounty

Abundant Produce

Now that summer is in full swing, gardens are following suit. I find myself wandering to my garden beds before almost every meal prep, snipping this, gathering that, filling my basket. After all, marinated Italian white beans need mint. Furthermore they have to be served on a bed of bitey arugula. Lettuces are necessary for a whole host of summer salads. Bok Choy works itself into almost every meal; a tossed salad with mulberries, a quinoa salad, marinated in lemon and oil then served in a pulled pork sandwich. Because I tend to put everything in my morning smoothie, in goes the extra Bok Choy. A vase of its tiny yellow flowers even sits on my counter.

Grilled peach arugula prosciutto pizza anyone? How about mulberry mojitos? Frosty cucumber mint brews straight from the garden? Purple basil blossoms seem to dot everything nowadays. Baby Italian kale sauteed with almonds and lemon zest makes a delicious side.

While my tomatoes, beets, and eggplant are at least a month from being ready, there is still plenty of produce to get crazy with right now. Our strawberries are so sweet that the only option is to eat them straight up, unadorned. I planted these beauties three years ago and have been impatiently waiting for them to produce. This year’s bumper crop has been much anticipated.

A Garden’s Fine Routine

It seems that summertime brings an interesting shift in routine. All winter, we walk the produce aisles, filling our carts with those cold-weather staples like potatoes, parsnips, and onions. Sweet Texas grapefruit and Cara Cara oranges notwithstanding, there isn’t the same olfactory allure to the produce. These dog-days are different. Right now, I wait to plan menus until after scoping out the farmers’ market and bringing home what catches my eye. Even more, what is ready in my backyard garden or my community garden makes all the difference as to what meals I make.

Harvest, then create. It seems backwards compared to wintertime ways. But I can’t help myself; cooking this way is truly satisfying! When purple or green cauliflower or oyster mushrooms somehow end up on my kitchen counter, my mind starts racing…grilled veggies, oyster mushroom crepes…the dishes start rolling out. Freshly slivered basil and freshly cut cilantro inspire me, so one only needs to eat and enjoy.

Summer bounty is a long awaited pleasure. In these cold climes, when the grey days call on us to light candles, listen to Bach, drink lavender lattes, and peruse seed catalogs; this is what we’ve been waiting all winter for.

I, for one, am taking full advantage.