Friday, January 21, 2011

Winter kitchen

I’ll confess that I’m not a committed locavore. I thoroughly respect the importance of not supporting the long-distance transport of food (and I often wonder what happened to the unfortunate copywriter who came up with Trader Joe’s ‘bringing you tastes from around the world’ campaign at exactly the same time that the ‘eat local’ movement kicked into high gear). But I also can’t imagine making the choice to give up bananas, grapefruits, English cheeses, chocolate, coffee and avocadoes simply because I live in New England. (Though if, like trailblazing locavore and author Barbara Kingsolver, I had to choose just one of the above to keep, I too would choose coffee.)

Even during high harvest season in New England, I like to be able to add a squirt of tropical lime to a batch of salsa I’ve prepared with tomatoes and garlic from the neighbors, or some Asian-imported tofu to a stir-fry of broccoli and corn from our Farmers Market. And I’ve noticed that even my friends who do espouse strong locavore principles in the summer talk about it a lot less once January arrives.

Still, my need for Florida citrus throughout the winter not withstanding, I find I’ve been preparing a lot of winter-inspired foods recently: foods that reflect the chill and darkness of January even if they aren’t truly based on root vegetables picked in September and hauled up from the cellar.

I’ve been making vegetarian soups a lot this month. Minestrone, with big white kidney beans, frozen kale, and canned diced tomatoes. Corn chowder, thickened with diced white and sweet potatoes. Black bean soup flavored with cumin or curry powder (definitely not from a local spice crop). And I’ve made gallons of vegetarian chili, using pinto beans, fire-roasted canned tomatoes, frozen corn, Yves brand meatless “ground beef” substitute for texture, adobo sauce for flavoring.

The current batch of vegetarian chili in my fridge reminds me of something from a children’s story or folk tale: it’s the bottomless pot of soup. I made it nearly two weeks ago. When it was down to its last quarter of a pot, we were invited to a last-minute dinner get-together during a snowstorm, so I cooked some barley and added it to stretch the chili farther, but then we never made it to the party, so I kept it. I didn’t think it would last more than a few days, but every night in the fridge it thickens, so every day when I heat it up for lunch I add water. Then the next day, it’s thick as soup concentrate once again, so I add more water. The chili goes on and on.

Luckily, there’s nothing I’d rather have for lunch. A few years ago, when I had an office job and was brown-bagging every day, I noticed that it takes me approximately the same amount of time and labor – some washing, some chopping, some stirring – to make one sandwich as it does to make a whole pot of soup. But one lasts a day and the other lasts a week. Or longer and longer, in the case of the vegetarian chili.

In another month or two, I’ll be tired of hot, savory soups and be craving the crisp fresh flavors of late summer: raspberries, strawberries, apples, arugula, peppers, tomatoes: foods best eaten as soon as they are picked. Unlike the chili, they barely last a few days, let alone a few weeks. But now it’s the darkest longest part of the winter, with the days only just beginning to lengthen almost imperceptibly, and I’m still in a soup mood. Stirring, heating, sampling, seasoning. Hot winter fare for a long cold winter.

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