Culling Cookbooks

Cookbook culling can be challenging. You have to be in the right mood of course, and it helps if you have a lot of time. The one thing the pandemic has given me is plenty of time, so when the mood to cull struck, I dove right in.

It started with the church basement ladies cookbooks. I needed a bit more room on the bookshelf, and I wanted it right away. In these situations, one picks the low-hanging fruit. I have a lot of church basement ladies cookbooks. Some I got from my mom, a couple were gifts, some I got at garage sales and such, plus I think they multiply on their own. I easily found seven to part with (one of my mom’s I kept because she had written a lot of comments in it, and it makes me smile), and I had the space I needed. Mission accomplished.

Oh, but it felt so good. What about all those apple cookbooks? Do I really need four apple cookbooks when I have a favorite I use all the time? (I decided not—the one will do me fine.) At this point, I decided to be methodical, going left to right on semi-organized shelves.

Start with easy: My Moosewood cookbooks and similar ilk. As expected, I kept most of these, although I did get rid of one Moosewood book about fancy vegetable sides, and another (non-Moosewood) book that was beautiful but contained recipes that I was pretty sure I’d never make.

Then came grains, which are such basic building blocks, I kept four of my cookbooks. Beans, my favorite building block, fared even better—I kept all seven. Beans—there are so many things you can do with beans!

Two of three soup cookbooks got culled, because I realize I almost never get soup recipes from soup cookbooks. I get them from all my other cookbooks. But it seemed prudent to retain one soup book.

I surprised myself on the potato cookbooks—I was sure I would keep the fat one with a lot of recipes and eschew the much thinner book with perhaps a tenth of the recipes. Wrong. The short book had far fewer recipes, but it had several I wanted to make. The bigger book—not even one!

If it sounds to you like I went through each book page by page, indeed I did, with the intent of “indexing” them. This is something I do with most of my new (to me, though they are more often used than new) cookbooks—I go through and make note of all the recipes I want to make, and I put them on a big (or smaller, depending) sticky inside the back cover. This is a great short cut. It isn’t foolproof, because preferences change over time, but it’s also fun to do—nice bonus.

In the course of culling my cookbooks, I’ve found several unindexed books. They go in a separate section on the bookshelf. This is also part of the culling process, but the mood to index a book is different from that to cull, so it goes in a stack and the culling goes on. Later in the evening, I will index a book or two.

Here’s a book I’m looking forward to indexing: The Victory Garden Cookbook. I have several vegetable cookbooks (just getting to these) and can you imagine a better time of year to be looking at vegetable cookbooks?

There is so much fun in this project: I’m making space on my bookshelf, reducing clutter, passing along some really good cookbooks to others and maybe getting some store credit at one of our local used bookstores into the bargain. (Independent bookstores offer much better prices than Half Price Books, and cookbooks are often in demand. I always take my cookbooks to local indies.)

I’m also getting excited about cooking again. I generally don’t like cooking in the summer because I’m a heat wimp, and each summer, I fear I’ll never want to cook again. But already I am longing to cook. The other day my neighbor said her green beans are coming in, would we like some? It took me a few minutes, but I found the recipe for minestrone casserole (think thick minestrone soup) done in a slow cooker.

Green beans? Yes, please!

Reading Local

The June book theme is Reading Local. For us, that’s Minneapolis, Minnesota, and pretty much anything in the Upper Midwest. It can be a local author or a local setting (ideally, both). It also includes books with the word local in the title (e.g., Going Local—which is the title of several different books, I just found out).

I had planned to start the month with The Art of the Wasted Day, by Patricia Hampl, which seemed like the perfect pandemic read. But then George Floyd was killed by the Minneapolis police. Protests and riots ensued; here, and then across the world. The protests have continued but the riots and looting have stopped. The protests must continue, and we must not let this go until systemic change happens.

Suddenly, reading The Art of the Wasted Day didn’t feel like the right read at all. Instead, I took something a bit more timely off the shelf: A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota, edited by Sun Yung Shin. Sheila (my book-theme cocreator) and I are discussing it this week. Like most edited books, it was a mixed bag. Some pieces were really moving, some painful, one I didn’t understand (this of course, bears revisiting). One, about Minnesota Nice, whacked me right between the eyes.

I followed that up with Hood Feminism, by Mikki Kendall (she is from Chicago—definitely the Upper Midwest). I’m about a third through, and am getting a good education. I’ve been a proud feminist most of my life, but I am now questioning that pride. It’s a little gut-wrenching, to be honest, but Kendall is making really good points. I don’t know where I’ll be at by the end of this book, but I am appreciating the journey.

In the poetry realm I’ve finished one book, and it has a title I absolutely love: Like the New Moon, I Will Live My Life, by Robert Bly (from Minnesota). This is the second of his poetry books that I’ve read, and I liked it a lot.

Fiction has been a bit of a romp. I started with Leave No Trace, a thriller by Mindy Mejia (Twin Cities). This is a very compelling book if you are able to engage in a strong suspension of disbelief. With that (important) caveat in mind, it’s a great summer read. I followed this up with Fever in the Dark, by Ellen Hart (Minneapolis). This is the 24th book in her Jane Lawless mystery series, set in south Minneapolis (and yes, I have read the prior 23).

A thriller followed by a mystery requires a palate cleanser, so I went Fishing With RayeAnne, by Ava Finch (Minneapolis). I found out while reading the book that Ava Finch is a pen name for Sarah Stonich. (Oh! I just checked online, and I see Stonich has republished it, Fishing! under her own name in March of this year. I got the Ava Finch copy a few years ago.) I had no idea Stonich is a local author.

What next? Tough call. Right now, the leading contenders in fiction are The Blindfold, by Siri Hustvedt (who lives in New York, but grew up in Minnesota and still has family in Northfield); Once in a Blue Moon Lodge, by Lorna Landvik (Minneapolis), a long-time favorite author of mine; The Waking Land, by Callie Bates (all I know about her location is “Upper Midwest”), in case I feel like fantasy; and Shelter Half, by Carol Bly (Duluth)—I loved her nonfiction book, Letters From the Country, and am curious if I will like her fiction as well.

As for nonfiction, I’ve still got a ways to go on Hood Feminism. But, should I have time, right now I have three primary contenders: The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir, by Kao Kalia Yang (St. Paul), which I’ve been meaning to read for years (it’s gotten a lot of attention both locally and nationally); Ignorance Ain’t Got No Shame, by Tracy Lenore Jackson (Minnesota), a memoir that looks like it will be difficult to put down once I pick it up; and Give a Girl a Knife, by Amy Theilen (northern Minnesota), a food memoir. But then again, maybe I’ll go for something beautiful: Tempt Me: The Fine Art of Minnesota Cooking, by Kathryn Strand Koutsky and Linda Koutsky. Take a look at it: a feast for the eyes.

Happy Reading!

When a Cooking Fail Is Also a Success

Yesterday, I made red lentil and barley pilaf, a recipe I ran across in the newspaper. I love both lentils and barley, and I had all the ingredients excepting one in the house. The missing ingredient: za’atar.

Here is my story. See if you can spot the places where I messed up.

Lacking za’atar, I made my own blend (see the end for za’atar recipe and notes). This was fun. I like making my own blends (also Italian mix and garam masala)—it’s usually easy, and it puts me better in touch with the food.

Once I had all the ingredients ready, I started with the barley. I love barley (though I haven’t cooked it in years). It has a wonderful texture—a grain of substance. Checking my cookbooks (I often crosscheck recipes) I find that the 45-55 minutes recommended in my recipe is quite conservative for barley. My grains book says 45 minutes to 1¾ hours! Well, good thing I’m making the lentils after the barley. I like to focus on one thing at a time.

The barley is nearing done (after extending the cook time quite beyond 55 minutes) and I decide now is the time to get a leg up on the lentils. I pour the oil in the pan (sunflower oil, which surprised me), measure out the vegetable stock, do a few more things and then get ready to mince the onions and—the barley? Oh crap! I grab the barley off the stove, but of course the pot is hot and the barley continues to cook. Must get barley out. I get out my little colander. Way too small. I grope for the big one (the big metal one that belonged to my grandparents), put it in the sink and pour in the barley. I leave it there.*

*I leave it there because when I pulled out the large metal colander, my pottery batter bowl was inside. As I edged the colander out, the batter bowl fell to the floor and broke in two. This is a bowl I use for everything (except batter)—cooking, baking, and herb work. It was a gift from my sister-in-law; we had a no-new-gifts rule, and it was a bowl she had no use for, and a bowl I treasured from the day I got it. Sigh.

After a little tantrum and a few tears (and an email to a potter), I started the lentils. Possibly I shouldn’t have cooked, but I had grated the ginger and minced the garlic and onions, and everything was there and measured and waiting. And I had made the za’atar. Even the part of myself that said I shouldn’t cook when I was so upset acknowledged that leaving this uncooked was not really an option. Also, I was curious (and invested) in the recipe, and I love barley and lentils.

So, I heat the oil (and throw in a few minced onions to let me know when it’s good and hot). I add the onions, ginger, and garlic and stir, and I have to stir continuously because they stick to the pan after a nanosecond. I scape and stir for the required two minutes, then add the spices (I did an extra bit of scrape and stir here, cooking the spices) before adding the stock (which I added just a bit of, at first, to deglaze the pan like you do when braising—I wanted to get all those good stuck bits up off the bottom; they add good flavor). Then I added all the stock and the lentils, stirred, and brought to a boil. Boil, stir, turn down to a simmer. Timer on.

Oh, the barley. Put the barley back in its pot, awaiting the lentils.

Oh my. This kitchen smells divine. I can’t believe I’m making this wonderful scent waft. My spouse comes into the kitchen, twice, purely to comment (effusively) about how good it smells. I am in seventh heaven.

The timer goes off on the lentils—they’re looking mind of mushy and done, but I try one of course (more than one, actually, they’re small). Oh no—not done! Add 10 more minutes (and more stock, as it’s getting thick and sticking on the bottom).

Did I mention the kitchen smells divine? I’m practically passing out that I’ve created such a wonderful aroma. (Well, the credit must go to the herbs, of course, but I turned up the heat.)

So the timer goes off, the lentils look appropriately mushy, and I add them to the barley. All that’s left to do is heat it up (because the barley has quite cooled). And I stir it all together and the consistency seems to be really good after all (I was afraid it would be too dry). All it has to do is heat through. I taste it.

The lentils aren’t done. Well crap! I can hardly extract the lentils and cook them more at this point. I add stock to the barley-lentil mix and cook for 15 minutes. This makes the barley a little mushy, but still chewy (I believe barley is one of our most forgiving grains) but the lentils still not quite done (many are done, but the crunchy few stand out). It’s a bit of a torture: It tastes really good, but it’s overcooked and undercooked.

The success of course is the spice blend (also please note a hefty teaspoon of cumin went into the lentils along with a good pinch of red pepper flakes, in addition to the za’atar). More information about my za’atar journey below.

 

Finding Za’atar

I am pretty sure I can get za’atar at the co-op, but that’s not happening for several days. So I scoured the internet for za’atar substitutes (I’m a fan of making my own mixes) and the range was huge! My big miss for homemade za’atar was sumac. Looking for sumac substitutes, I came up with lemon pepper, and lemon peel. I also found two wildly divergent za’atar recipes with the same ingredients, and this is what I came up with, somewhere in the middle (makes a little more than half a cup):

  • 3 T thyme
  • 1 tsp oregano
  • 1 tsp marjoram
  • 2 T toasted sesame seeds*
  • 1 T lemon pepper (scant)
  • 1 T lemon zest**

*I found a container of toasted sesame seeds at the grocery store and was happy to take this shortcut!

**Don’t add this until just before using if it’s fresh, and then only scaled to the amount you need for the recipe.

Excepting the lemon zest (unless it’s dried), grind the spices in a mortar and pestle (or a spice grinder)—enough to break up some of the sesame seeds and keep plenty whole. Then add the lemon zest. The amount to add is a little iffy and up to you. I added about a teaspoon and it was good.

Confession: When I made it, I was sure it wouldn’t work. I thought it smelled like dill. But I said to myself, you made it, at least try it. So glad I did.

Happy cooking!

Cookies for Breakfast?

When I ran across a super simple recipe for oatmeal breakfast cookies, I had to try it out. Here’s how simple:

Ingredients

  • 3 large ripe bananas, mashed (see note below)
  • 1¾ cup quick oats
  • ¼ cup chocolate chips
  • ¼ cup applesauce

Steps

  • Add the quick oats to the bananas and mix well. Then fold in the chocolate chips, then the applesauce.
  • Tablespoon-size cookies can be rolled into a ball or flattened before baking.

Bake at 350 for 15-20 minutes, until lightly browned on top.

Note: When bananas get a bit too ripe on my counter, I toss them in the fridge right in their skins. They freeze marvelously. When you want to make banana bread or breakfast cookies, bring out the bananas an hour or two ahead of time and put them in a large bowl to thaw. Easy peasy. They squirt right out of the peel.

I didn’t have 3 large bananas, so I used 3 small and 1 medium banana. And a quarter cup of chocolate chips didn’t seem like nearly enough, so I added a hefty half cup.

The cookies were absolutely delicious out of the oven. Lots of chocolate chips (I used Ghirardelli 60% Cacao) and plenty moist. Yummy and very filling. Hearty, one might say.

This morning, however, the story was a mite different. They were almost soggy, and with my morning tea—way too many chocolate chips. And I think a pinch of salt might be needed.

I am not giving up on this. I’ve already added bananas to the shopping list. This is an idea with serious legs. Next time I will NOT use four bananas. And I think I might try blueberries instead of chocolate chips. And maybe some walnuts.

Suggestions for additional variations are more than welcome!

Pork Chops Delicious

My first new recipe of the year (see resolution to cook at least one new thing every month) is for baked (though I might call them braised) pork chops.

I found this recipe in my mom’s recipe box, clipped from an unknown newspaper. It intrigued me, and it was one of the few meat recipes in the box that didn’t require a can of condensed soup.

Here’s the recipe:

Ingredients

  • 8 pork chops
  • 2 cups soy sauce
  • 1 cup water
  • ¼ tsp. pepper
  • 1/3 cup brown sugar
  • 1 Tbsp molasses
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 1 clove garlic, minced

I didn’t want to make 8 pork chops as I only had 2. But quartering the rest of the recipe was tedious, so I just halved it. I do not regret this decision. (Also, I used an entire clove of garlic, and not a small one.)

Steps

Mix all the ingredients excepting the pork chops in a sauce pan, heat and simmer for two minutes. Let cool.

Pour the cooled mixture over the chops, turning the chops around in the marinade so they are thoroughly drenched. Make sure a lot of the onion and garlic pieces are on top of the meat. Marinade, covered, for at least 2 hours in the fridge, or you can also marinade overnight. (I just put the chops right in the pan I plan to bake them in—less to clean up. Mine had a lid. You can also use foil.)

Using a shallow baking pan, bake the chops (with the marinade, again with lots of the good bits on top) tightly covered, at 375 degrees for one hour.

After an hour, remove the cover and bake for another ½ hour or so, when the sauce is reduced and the chops are done.

This was excellent. It would have been even better had I adjusted the cooking time to reflect 2 pork chops rather than 8 (I believe half an hour could be shaved off), but it’s a very good starting point.

Thanks Mom!

Resolutions for 2020

I usually do three resolutions for the New Year, and I’m pretty good at keeping them. Most years, it seems they just come to me, but this year, I’ve struggled a little bit. Does that mean I shouldn’t do them? Well, no. Let it simmer a little bit.

And one day a week or two ago it occurred to me there are so many new things—foods—I want to make in the kitchen, and yet I keep making the same old same old. Why not a resolution to make at least one new thing a month? Ever since I happened upon the idea, it keeps growing on me. There are so many things I want to make! I bought a Somali-American cookbook a few months ago, and that in itself could provide the requisite 12 dishes. But I also have a book of Mediterranean recipes for the slow cooker, and that would also provide 12 candidates. And then I found two in my mom’s recipe box that I want to try: macaroni and cheese (which I’ve never made except from a box), and marinated pork chops.

There are also some very common things I want to make that I never have: scalloped potatoes, buttermilk biscuits, quiche. Also some less common things: falafel, samosas, sticky chicken.

As I got to thinking about this resolution, I thought 12 isn’t nearly enough, I should do at least 24, or maybe 1 a week—that isn’t really so much. Perhaps not. But it wouldn’t be fun; it would be something hanging over my head all the time. One a month I think I can do, even in the brutal months of July and August with temperatures and humidity in the 90s. I have a secret goal of 25, but I will be quite happy with one new dish every month.

The second resolution is financial, which is boring to everyone so I’ll glide over it, just to say cutting back on both groceries and eating out by 20%. We’ve gotten a bit frivolous on both counts.

The third resolution I struggled with the longest. I had ideas for this or that, but they were all so me-focused. I wanted something more community, something outwardly positive. And then today it occurred to me: Do a kind thing every day. I love this idea. I know that I’ll invariably fail, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that I’ll try. And as I keep trying, I’ll get better at it and notice more opportunities to be kind.

They don’t have to be big things: waiting an extra second to hold the door for someone with a bag; complimenting someone on something (I think this only works if you mean it); clipping a coupon for a friend; giving up your seat on the bus; sending a birthday card; washing out a bowl that someone left behind.

Of course there are bigger acts, like shoveling your neighbor’s walk, helping someone stuck in the snow, paying the tab for the next table in a restaurant, or buying movie tickets for the people behind you in line. I hope to do some of those, too. But for the most part, I’m focused on the small, everyday acts of kindness. The more the better.

I’m quite excited by the 2020 resolutions. A nice mix. I like the creativity and learning involved in the cooking resolution; the discipline and numbers involved in the budgeting resolution; and the challenge, rewards, and potential long-term impact of the kindness resolution.

Any other resolution makers out there?

Magazine Madness

I’ve never been good at keeping up with my magazines, but about two years ago I seemed to mostly stop reading them altogether, without ending my subscriptions. Well, you might know trouble lies there.

Just recycle the lot of them, maybe keeping the newest issue of each, I hear you say. A good strategy, which worked with exactly one magazine that I found worthless (only a one-year subscription, thank goodness), and old poetry magazines that I subscribed to specifically to find out about new poetry.

It all came to a head when I was looking for a particular magazine which caused me to have to upset the precarious balance of all the magazines piled on top of my seriously overflowing magazine rack. This stack went on my chair, awaiting . . . something. After three days of not sitting in my chair, I hauled the stack to the rack and started sorting. I arranged chronologically by magazine, oldest to newest. I figured I’d read the oldest ones really fast, and slow down as I progressed. I have six magazines I can’t part with without at least glancing through: Cook’s Illustrated, Cook’s Country, Mother Earth Living, Orion, Yes!, and Minnesota Conservation Volunteer.

But as I finished organizing, I thought—wouldn’t I rather read all the October issues of my cooking magazines now? When they’re talking about fall foods and recipes? Why, yes. And doesn’t the same hold true for Mother Earth Living, with the seasons and such? And certainly the Conservation Volunteer is seasonal.

Fruit basket upset! Clearly the best way to get through the magazines is seasonally, rather than some vague start with the oldest magazines and read fast sort of approach. Granted, this way it takes a year (maybe), but at least, if I stick to it, I will be caught up in a year. This is a pretty good deal to me, since the tower has been building for a few years now (I decreased magazine reading several years before stopping altogether). So I went through and reorganized the magazines by month/season.

I love it, and I’m having great success!  I started the project just one week ago, and I’ve gotten through about 20 magazines. I have all the October magazines done, as well as all the Autumn issues. I have started on November. Actually, I have a good chunk of November done, because one of the cooking magazines is October-November. As such, I read three November cooking magazines in a row. I got a lot of Thanksgiving cooking tips, and was able to do a lot of quick page flipping because how many articles do you need to read about roasting a turkey for a large crowd when you usually go out on Thanksgiving?

I have even made a spreadsheet to track my progress, with the months and seasons in the left column and the six magazines across the top. It’s nice to see two entire rows (October, fall) already completed. I like to see progress this way. When I feel the magazines are still so many, I can look and see how much I’ve already done. If I finish November early, I might read a July issue of something—sort of a vacation. In this way, I think I might get the project done in less than a year.

This is not a solution that will appeal to everyone. But if your magazines are overflowing and you truly can’t part with them, this might be the perfect approach for you. It’s certainly working for me! I love really sinking into the season across the magazines. I love that I’m honoring each magazine by looking at every page, finding good recipes, poems, ideas for saving the world, and beautiful pictures to send to friends. I also love that I’m finally doing this, after continuing to add magazine after magazine to the tippy tower. I love that already the magazines seem manageable instead of overwhelming.

This will be a good New Year’s resolution–finishing the magazines (preferably earlier than later, but no later than end of September).

Fall. It makes me plan ahead. My favorite season.

Happy autumn!

Fall Cooking Experiments

Fall has arrived, and already I am in cooking mode. I’ve been exceptionally interested in the humble bean lately—kidney, pinto, garbanzo, and refried, along with lentils, black-eyed peas, and all manner of beans and legumes I’ve yet to discover. I’ve also found myself drawn to warming spices—cinnamon, cumin, turmeric, ginger, curry, cloves, coriander, cayenne, chili powder.

Since beans are so hearty, I often forgo meat with my bean meals. I think this is a good thing both for my health and the planet. I’m getting more and more concerned about climate change, and cutting down on meat (especially beef) is definitely a positive step. I’ve found using beans to be a really good way to not miss meat.

My first experiment was minestrone casserole in the slow cooker. This is exactly like what it sounds. Minestrone soup, except it’s thick with pasta, chickpeas, green beans, onions, and carrots, and instead of a ladle, you dish it out with a spoon. It was delicious. The singular mess-up: The recipe said add the green beans (fresh from my neighbor’s garden!) and pasta at the same time. Big mistake. The pasta was done long before the green beans. It worked out okay in reheating, but the initial version had very crunchy beans and pasta as cooked as I dared let it go. I will absolutely make this again, adjusting for the green beans. (Recipe from: The Mediterranean Slow Cooker Cookbook)

My second experiment was Black-Eyed Peas & Rice One-Pot, and doesn’t that sound easy? Doesn’t it make you think when you’re done, you’ll have one pot to clean up, plus maybe a cutting board, a knife, and a couple of utensils? Well, no. At the end of cooking, I knew if I was the picture-taking kind of person, I’d take a picture of my sink full of dishes from my one-pot meal (and that did not include the one pot, which was on the stove). Uh huh. Let that sink in.

That said, it was delicious; a bit time consuming (for those of us not as dexterous with the knife as we might wish) but not difficult. The one-pot refers to the pot where you bring the black-eyed peas to a boil, turn off the heat, and leave them sit for up to three hours. At that point, in a separate pan, you sauté onions for five minutes, then add carrots and green peppers (I substituted celery because I hate green peppers, and they worked perfectly) for three more. Then add minced ginger, garlic, and spices (cumin, turmeric, cayenne, curry powder). Cook for a minute. Add the contents to the one-pot. Add water to the sauté pan to deglaze (one cup)—bring to a boil, and add to one-pot. Then add rice and crushed tomatoes (the recipe calls for diced, but I prefer crushed; both the recipe and I concur that fire-roasted are best).

The mess-up: the black-eyed peas took much longer to cook than they should have. I figured out pretty quickly that I should have put a lid on the black-eyed peas as they were soaking. The recipe didn’t say one way or the other, so I opted for no lid. Mistake. Next time, bring the beans to a boil and let them sit, covered, for up to three hours.

But the rice (basic brown long grain) was very forgiving, and the meal was delicious. Here’s something interesting: This is one of those recipes where you don’t add salt until the very end. All the rest of the spices are in there at the beginning. Salt and pepper are last. At the end, I added plenty of pepper, but no salt was needed. So rare, not to add salt to a dish. (Perhaps the acidity of the tomatoes added that sparky edge of salt?)

Two experiments, two successes with minor mess-ups. I think this is shaping up to be an excellent autumn.

The Heart of Winter

We’ve been having serious winter here lately. Polar vortex, freezing rain, snow on ice, black ice, snow and more snow, and the resulting snow emergencies (for those of you not in snow climes, this is about moving cars so streets can be plowed).

And I have hit my winter stride.

Last summer I lost interest in cooking and despaired it would ever come back. It has, and in spades. Or perhaps I should say teaspoons. All the old standbys—meatloaf, roasted vegetables, corn pudding, ham steak, baked potatoes, applesauce, etc. Plus a few new things—minestrone soup, kedgeree (a rice-lentil mix), and quesadillas (how in the world did I never try making these before? So easy!). But here is the fun part (or do I mean the frustrating part?): I cook so much that I have to stop because we have too many leftovers and we’re going to (a) waste food, plus (b) there’s no room in the fridge for anything else anyway.

Oh, the difference that six months can make.

Winter also always gives me a special appreciation for the birds. So many animals migrate or hibernate; I love the birds that stay (or arrive) for the winter. Staying closer to home in winter, I’m much more dependent on my backyard for birding entertainment. I have not been disappointed. Yesterday morning I saw my first pileated woodpecker of the year, in my neighbor’s tree. She was slowly sauntering up a limb. (Today I noticed some large fresh-made holes in a tree several houses away. I wonder if that might also have been my pileated woodpecker.)

But the stars of winter this year are the cardinals and juncos. They’ve been rather plentiful all season, but Wednesday in the snowstorm, even at its height (an inch of snow per hour) the birds were plentiful in the yard. (I went out and spread seed twice, and made sure they had water, and also put out a few peanuts for the blue jays.) I could not get a good count on the cardinals—I think maybe 12. There were a lot more juncos—40 or so? And they stayed all day. Usually the cardinals visit a few times a day. Same with the juncos—they come and go (emphasis on go). But not that day. And I couldn’t help myself. I think I spent half the afternoon watching them. (Also a few chickadees and two intrepid blue jays.)

And the other thing that winter brings me to, at its best, is going through stuff and culling. Being cooped up in a house can be very motivating that way. Most recently it was a small corner bookshelf, that must have been purchased at a clown shop. I went to empty the first shelf and there were just layers and stacks and piles of books—far more than should be allowed in such a small space. This made the culling a bit more challenging (I thought it would be a breeze to do the entire bookcase in an afternoon before I realized its clown-car aspect). On the bright side, I got a huge stack of unsightly hardcover mysteries tucked away on the bottom shelf (ungainly towers on top of the corner bookshelf—20 of them at least).

But it’s not just books. For some reason I develop this “eye” in the depth of winter: I look at everything in the house through a more critical lens. This is a great time to go through clothes, books, dishes, anything and everything. It’s like I have this roving “what can I get rid of” eye. And I find that getting rid of excess things is very refreshing.

This, to me, is the heart of winter: cooking, appreciating the nature in my own backyard, and getting the house in order.

I think this is what I love about winter. It is so close and simple.

In Praise of Winter Hibernation

On of my favorite things to do on a snowy day is sit in a chair by a window and watch the snow. Ideally, there’s a table with the chair, and I have a mug of hot tea and a book. So I will read, and at the end of every section I look out and watch the snow. Sometimes briefly, sometimes for minutes. It’s hypnotic and relaxing and magical all at once.

On a good snowy day (which to me means at least four inches of snow), I often don’t even leave the house except to put out food for the birds along with fresh water. When it gets way below zero (-15 and colder) I also put out peanuts in the shell. Generally, I don’t like to put out peanuts because almost always the squirrels find them first and bury them all; and there are squirrels in my roof, and I hate to reward these trespassers with one of their favorite foods. However, when it’s twenty below, even I take pity on the squirrels, although I was happy to see the blue jays got to the peanuts first both of the last two times I put them out.

The birds are a great part of my joy in winter hibernation. Just today I saw a house finch at the feeder—the first one I’ve seen this year, and so brightly colored I thought it might be a purple finch. But the female showed up and I was assured they were house finches. I have had tons of juncos this year! Far more than usual. And not nearly as many chickadees as in past years, so I was happy to hear several of them when I was outside earlier today.

Hibernation is also good for reading. One of the books I’ve been reading (a surprise theme find) is The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, by Margareta Magnusson. Much like The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (which I haven’t read), it is a book focused on decluttering. But it’s half the length and feels much more pragmatic (mind you I’m only one-third through). Magnusson suggests starting in the attic or the basement. She suggests starting with large things. She suggests starting with easy things.

So after 40 pages I’m looking around the house for big easy things. There’s that large cloth shopping basket I’ve never used. What about this air conditioner that doesn’t work? And I have entire categories of easy things to get to—linens and shoes, for sure. (Interestingly, not winter boots. I was shocked, looking through my death-cleaning eyes, to see I have four pair of winter boots. That’s nuts! What can go? I have two pair for serious winter snow, meaning over six inches. One pair is for shoveling and outdoor work. The other is for wearing in public. For the rest of winter, I primarily wear my little black snow boots for every day wear out of the house. But for quick runs into the yard—to the compost bin or the bird feeders, I like my old cheap step-in moon boots. I have one pair of tennis shoes and four pair of winter boots? Hmmm.)

And of course hibernation almost drives one to cook. I tried a dish I’d never heard of, called kedgeree, a mix of rice and lentils with cumin, cardamom, coriander, turmeric, and likely a few spices I’m forgetting. Next time I will use red lentils, as the brown lentils I used took much longer than the rice to cook (boo!). But the taste was sound, and it would serve as a good breakfast, a side dish, or on a tortilla.

I also made my first minestrone soup. I used the slow cooker and it tasted great. However, I have a piece of advice: Don’t use a pasta in a soup that you haven’t tried on its own. I used an “ancient grains” pasta. After the allotted time, it had fallen apart. Was it the pasta or the cooking method? I am not sure, but next time I think I will cook it stovetop. Sometimes I need a little more control than the slow cooker allows. Also made in hibernation: ham steak with corn pudding, and a big batch of applesauce.

We’ve finally been getting some serious winter here. I will tell you, I will take snow over a polar vortex any day. The up side of the vortex is that now a 10-degree day feels quite comfortable. We just yesterday shoveled out six inches of snow, and we might get six more inches overnight tonight. And then maybe another six inches Thursday. So there will be a whole lot of shoveling going on.

Happily, I love shoveling snow (along with raking leaves, one of my favorite household tasks). My absolute favorite is shoveling at night. It’s so quiet; snow muffles sound. Just me and a few neighbors, the sounds of shovels scraping snow. I cannot explain why I love this. It even smells good to me.

Mind you I love the light fluffy snow (which is what we’ve been getting) and not the heart attack snow, laden with moisture (that’s more in March/April). And of course by March/April, all of the glow has worn off the hibernation, but that’s okay because the days are longer and warm days are in reach.

For now, we’re in a winter cycle at least through the end of the month. You can hate it, or you can ride it, and I’ve decided to ride it. With a shovel, some books, birdseed, and a full pantry.