What I admire so of winter, what I will miss, are all the small details, the gentle rhythm of our days. The still-midnight mornings giving way to first light, late sunrises and birdsong we catch without trying. The blow-first breakfasts to build warmth within, the parade of steaming mugs to heat fingers and bellies.
Evenings that wind down with the day, bedtimes eased by Mother Nature, turning off light at the source. It is, of course, still an uphill battle, but they seem to recognize a certain folly in opposing such high authority.
Winter is inside play. I love inside play. And, unlike in summer, life indoors seems a-okay. Hibernating, hunkering down, holing up, blissing out, call it what you will: I call it dreamy.
I adore the library books by the stack, my card maxed out for months on end. The board games and puzzles and dominoes and playing cards, the science experiments unearthed at long last. The paints pulled out weekly, new media explored, old toys resurrected, re-purposed, re-imagined.
Winter is wool and cheery striped socks, flannel pajamas and rumply blankets, darting candles and dancing orange logs whose hot breath and pure spectacle never fail to draw a crowd. Winter is cozy.
Honestly, can you even speak the word without smiling? Although the dictionary cites 'boom' and 'hiss' as examples, I secretly suspect cozy's the original onomatopoeia. No one ever, I feel I must state for the record, goes gushy over sitting around the A/C.
Winter is birthdays, for us, anyway. Two of my babes were born in the dark months, and I'm sure this influences my winter-love. Post-Christmas, we have plenty to celebrate yet, this year ushering in Mr. Six and Miss Three. It is hard not to love a season of layer cakes, of puffed cheeks and paper lanterns and piñata parties.
And of course the outdoors, frosted and brisk. Few things compare to the grand bas relief between deep bundled layers and mincing sharp air. I know I've gone on and on about the aesthetics, but have we declared hot diggity yet for that awesome invisible? Winter's air is a wonder, invigorating, exhilirating, crisp and clear and exquisitely clean. The proverbial fresh breath, free to a good home.
And then there's light. Good golly, the light. Come winter, my glare-weary eyes get relief, soaking in the quiet shades and soft, muted hues. The spare glowy rays on our up-tilted earth are scrimmy, diffused, diaphanous. The hours of sunlight may number too few, but the stuff itself is extraordinary. Quality over quantity, you have my vote.
Winter is endless, overcast skies. You might think I'm turning coat. No way, no how.
Blue skies are nice, but so trite, so bright. But grey skies are wild with nuance and splendor. Subtle and whispery, comforting and close, ten thousand shades masquerading as one. Grey skies are the sheet-draped pillow forts of my childhood but in grandiose lengths of the finest wool flannel, strung up and hung high, right overhead.
Winter is not without its drawbacks. It is hard on houses, and trees, and extremities. Every outing means getting chilled to the marrow, returning home all red-nosed and stone-toed. Skin doesn't take kindly to the fierce dryness, chapping and cracking relentlessly. Apparently, if this year's any indication, chairs, doors, and wood instruments feel the same way.
The plague common cold is a regular visitor, digging in its stubborn heels for weeks on end. Fashion takes a back seat to survival: I bit the bullet this year, bought a 'sleeping bag coat'. This isn't its proper name, but you know the ones, those enormous shoulder-to-knee pufferies. I look like a walking, talking duvet. I love it, unconditionally.
Last week I found WordMake, the ridiculously addictive word scramble app. Six letters, five minutes, on your marks, get set, spell! I once thought I was literate. I couldn't beat 65%. Repeatedly. For hours. Humiliating. (Hours? On an app? For shame. And you can thank me whenever you tear yourself away.) Finally, finally, I nailed 85%, aided greatly by my first-ever six-letter word. IRWENT? WINTER, obviously. We're kindred spirits, winter and I.
I realize I am a minority of one.
Why the guilt? Well, I've noticed I'm sort of alone, here, that for many there's no love lost on the calendar's first months. What for me is a most welcome stretch of sweet quiet, is for many a too-long, much-dreaded slog. I understand; I have my own unendurable months. They just happen elsewhere in the year. I didn't want to rub anyone's nose in my joy while endless winter stretched before us, yet. Spring starts next week. Thanks for indulging me.
For my part, I'm mourning the passing of this season. Last weekend, we took one last walk in the woods, after a surprise dusting, Saturday night. We saw ducks, froze our feet, thanked the heavens for car heaters. I had chance to say a proper farewell. Until next year, then. I'll miss you, dear Winter. Except in the kitchen, where winter's still alive and well.
We'll be eating winter for some time, yet. No peas in the ground until Mother's Day, here. But eating winter in Ohio is funny business, involving no small amount of cross-country provisions.
Let's pause here.
I think by now you know I'm fairly dedicated to my foodshed, to eating what grows in my extended backyard. Berries are a two-month treat in our home, an early summer feast we await all year long. We've not had fresh tomatoes since fall, though we're still pulling them, roasted and sauced, from the deep freeze. Asparagus in Ohio is a two-week eye-blink, and this year, I intend to eat it for fourteen days, straight. I've been praising local produce over at Edible Columbus for nearly a year, now, and walking the talk for many years, more. I believe in the price, the impact, the local economy, the freshness, the small farmer, and above all, the flavor.
However. Nothing grows in Ohio in winter. Really, nothing. In Seattle, you can eke out greens and roots in January. Not so here. We still can (and do) eat local in winter—grains, meats, honey, dairy—but for produce, we supplement with imported fare. I feel a little guilty about this, also. But not a lot. In part, because of this intelligent analysis. In part, because we are oh so choosey.
In the broad black-listed group of shipped produce, there are, in my mind, clear winners and losers. I would not, for example, buy out-of-season strawberries, because their very nature is fair-weather and fleeting. Ditto any soft, supple, juicy ripe anything; they lose their souls in cold-storage and semi-trucks. But there's a whole separate class—hardy roots and sturdy leaves, apples and crucifers, glorious citrus and alliums—that fare very well for weeks on end. The traditional storage veg, in other words, the once-upon-a-time root cellar residents. So when the mercury bottoms out and the local stores dry up, we turn to these keepers for winter sustenance.
Which brings me to parsnips, keepers extraordinaire. Do you know parsnips? I can't remember not. They inhabit my earliest memories, like carrots and peas and vienna sausages (remember those?). But my dear friend Dania once brought it to my attention that perhaps parsnips haven't hit the mainstream just yet. So in case you have not made their acquaintance, allow me to introduce you. You'll soon be fast friends.
In form, parsnips look rather like carrots, but the vampire-stricken version, maybe the old black-and-white model. Bleached-out carrots is one angle, anyway. I happen to think they are humble ivory stunners, elegant in winter whites, the color of parchment. And then there's the flavor, which is something else altogether. Parsnips share carrots' sweetness, but it is modulated, mellow, tempered by a fantastic creaminess. Parsnips share potatoes' starchiness, but with yards more personality, which somehow brings vanilla to mind. David Tanis, in his fine A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes, says they taste like a cross between butternut and chestnuts. Yes, those too. And all of the above, and none of the above. They're their own individual excellent.
They're wonderful cooked to falling apart and puréed, with a splash of heavy cream and big lashings of fresh nutmeg. They are my white root of choice for soups and stews; last week's beef stew was studded with carrots and parsnips, hold the potatoes. But the way we eat them most is simply, straight-up, roasted with olive oil and salt. Roasting vegetables is nobody's news, but I sing its familiar song anyway, because it's foolproof, fast, and ridiculously delicious. And although nearly all vegetables react brilliantly to high heat, each one transforms differently.
Parnsips, for their part, caramelize at the edges, going bronzed and slightly crisp, nearly crunchy at the tips. The insides, meanwhile, turn yielding and creamy, their sweetness offset by a dusting of salt. I prefer them to french fries by many a mile, and make these, not mashed spuds, each St. Patrick's Day (nudge, wink). I didn't learn to roast parsnips from David Tanis; I fell hard for them nearly a decade ago. But I've yet to find a better description for this preparation, which he calls 'Parsnips, Epiphany-Style'. And although I can only speak for myself, here, I find any season bearable with the odd epiphany thrown in.
Look for small, firm parsnips—carrot-size or smaller are ideal—if you can find them. That said, I mostly wind up with medium, which are also fine; just trim them of their cores when chopping. If they are huge (more than 2" at the base) and/or floppy, leave them for another winter's day.
Because of their high starch content, I roast parsnips lower and slower than veg with a higher water content (i.e. cauliflower, asparagus, carrots). Cut roughly 1/4"-1/3" at the widest point, the time and temp below should yield a creamy center. If your parsnips are significantly larger or smaller, adjust the time up or down, accordingly. Chopped leftovers are smashing in hash or in soups.
2-3 pounds parsnips
3-4 Tbs. olive oil
salt + pepper
Preheat oven to 425°, and place rack in lower third of oven.
Peel, top and tail parsnips. Cut into roughly equal 3" lengths—I simply cut the small ones crosswise, then cut the thick end in two. For larger parsnips, cut crosswise, halve the small end, and quarter large end. If your larger parsnips have a particularly woody-looking central core, remove with your knife and discard. I do not bother on the smaller specimens. This takes much longer to read than to do. All you are aiming for is even sizing for even cooking.
Scatter cut parsnips on an unlined, heavy sheet pan (jelly roll pans work wonderfully for cookies and roast vegetables, both), and drizzle liberally with 3-4 Tablespoons olive oil. Sprinkle with 1 generous teaspoon kosher salt, plus freshly ground pepper, if using, and toss all together with fingers, to coat.
Roast parsnips 25-30 minutes on lower rack, shuffling with a spatula after 15-20 minutes, moving corner veg toward the center and center veg to the outfield. Test at this point, and if more tenderness and/or crispness is desired (likely), roast another 5-10 minutes, or until parsnips are golden and caramelized at the tips, and fork tender at their thickest point.
Remove, taste for seasoning, add additional salt and/or pepper if desired, and serve hot.