Please note: I did not, two weeks ago Wednesday, sit down in this space and shout, "IT SNOOOOWED!!! In OCTOBER!!!!!! Wa-HOOOOO!!!!". I nearly did. I wanted to. (And it really did.)
But I didn't.
I didn't, not because it was only a light dusting. (Though it was, gone almost before it began. But there were cars with white caps and frosty-topped mulch and flakes on the weather map and that works for me.)
Nope. I kept my mouth shut because it was only October, early yet, and it seemed, I don't know, disrespectful? It is always a little awkard, come Fall, this being a fan of the cold months. For the most part, people like September, with its apples and school bells and kids in new coats. Even October goes down pretty easy, its blaze of leaves a handy distraction.
But by November, folks get grim. Upper lips stiffen, shoulders curl, and grins acquire that stern flatline that says I'm bearing it, but only just. Returning from school this afternoon, I walked behind two women lamenting what's next. I get so sad when it's like this, they mourned. I LOVE summer, they agreed. I hate winter. I'm always cold. I wish every day was 90°. It is a testament to my mother's excellent parenting, particularly in the area of politeness, that I did not bust in with What are you, CRAZY?! That, and considerable experience. I've learned the hard way that, at least in mixed company, mooning over winter's cold and overcast and other glories is a little like enumerating the joys of grout cleaning.
So I bit my tongue and bided my time and not just on matters of snow. I didn't gush over the quickening cold, the winds biting through our mostly mild days. Or thrill over the morning my girl and I spent, recently, digging in the dungeon for hats and scarves. About how cold days and damp afternoons have nudged our play increasingly indoors, where paints plus water pretty much always equal excellent.
Some like it outside. I get it. I kept quiet.
I didn't go on about how, for weeks now, we talk less of meeting at pools and parks and playgrounds. About how, on some especially lucky days, friends big and little join us indoors, to make stuff and messes and something out of nothing and silk purses out of school day afternoons. (Riddle: How do you know if a friend is a true friend? Answer: They don't so much as mention the considerable glitter in their cheese.)
I've not really dwelled on the garden dying back, and the swell of relief that brings me each year. I do admire the last hardy few, the toad lilies and fierce daisies and final tough-as-nails roses. But I love as much if not more the crisping, the blackening, architectural, stark. I prefer it this way, less pressure, less mess. Not to mention mosquitoes. Probably ought to pull those tomatoes...
I didn't bring up the bit about Monday, when Zoë asked just how many days until Winter. We did the math. Two days shy of halfway! We cheered in unplanned unison.
Two peas in a pod, we are. She is as eager as I.
I dodged the way we, on Halloween, declared it The Day To Dunk Leaves. Because Dunk Day means the leaves are at their most ridiculous, which in turn means we're but a twitch from bald trees and bare branches, now until March. The house smelled of honey all that afternoon. I don't much like honey to eat (too sweet), but the smell is something I adore, as it signals the cresting of full-on fall and the long winter months unspooling ahead. But I get that it might seem the beginning of the end.
After all, even I, winter diehard that I am, understand the trade-off analysis. I tried to get groceries by bike, thrice last week. Two times I succeeded, though at twice my regular bulk (cow coat, mittens) and half my regular speed (serious headwinds). The third time, I made it just two blocks. Rained out. Such is now.
Five five gallon buckets of leaves came out of our gutters, last week. I didn't just stutter. It was twenty five gallons. Our roofline isn't all that generous. But boy, the trees are.
We're squeezing in outside play while we can, after school, before dark. Two separate times, these were, just last month. As of last Sunday, it's afterschoolbeforedark. Just one word. Just one one window.
We indulge in the last of the shirt-sleeve days, casting off coats and climbing higher and scrambling unencumbered and pushing our luck because we know these days are numbered. Because most days already, we're thick with clothes and clumsy with chill and out there anyway, because we can. Because we soon can't. Because iced-over monkey bars just aren't all that.
The sky is turning that brittle blue. Still glass-clear, still often cloud-free, but thinner, somehow. Fragile. The world has been desperately beautiful, this past week. Air mincing-crisp, Pantone leaves, the whole shebang bottle-it-up perfect. You ache, even in the moment, knowing it'll all like a starry-fingered newborn be in the rearview in 10-9-8...
It isn't done yet. I miss it already. And I'm so ready to turn the page.
Because a girl can keep quiet for only so long. (My upbringing was excellent. My follow-through, limited.) Pumpkins are nice and carving was wonderful and already one's too old for jack-o-lantern's and so, I get all gooped up to my elbows and enjoy. But if I'm honest? Pitchforking them to the compost the week after is at least as excellent, as it means the situation's finally getting serious. We're in for the long haul. Apply the warm woolies. Light the candles. Breathe. Burrow in. Hunker down. Exhale. Eat cabbage.
Still with me?
I understand cabbage is sort of hard core. That it signals winter. Sort of screams Adios, tomatoes! That there is this user-friendly team of fall fare—apples, carrots, pumpkins, back-to-school snacks, all-purpose cookies—that folks embrace. That cabbage is so on the other side. I get that. But I've been toting plump celadon heads home since August, August, and in a rare show of restraint, managed to keep mum until now.
Mum's up. Time to talk.
I love cabbage sautéed simply, and often as not polish off one that way. But I also appreciate how it plays well with others, particularly potatoes, preferably across the sub-continent. India has a way with cabbage and potatoes that is full-stop gifted. There are hundreds (thousands) of variations on the theme, but to the last they share this: take two bland stalwart storage vegetables, add three jiggers of spice and one shred of time, and behold, transformation. Transformation and lunch, warmly spiced, profoundly fragrant, and sunny enough to span a long winter.
In fact, it's little more than a basic fry-up, but a fry-up well and wickedly spiced. Cabbage is ribboned; boiled potatoes, cubed; the both, set down in a slick of hot oil, spluttering with chili, cumin and mustard seeds. The cabbage softens and sweetens and morphs from bulky heap to melting tender tangle. The potatoes, being potatoes, get stumble-down drunk on the spiked oil. A fine fit. Together, they spend under ten minutes in the pan. They emerge unrecognizable.
Golden with turmeric and coriander, freckled with mustard's nutty crunch and cumin's funk, warm but not hot with two chilis' shadow, this is cabbage, adored and exalted. Sometimes I stir in little green peas. Sometimes, garbanzos. Often, neither. Almost always I dollop plain whole yogurt alongside. Except when I fry an egg to go over. Or wrap it up in a leftover crêpe and eat it, eyes-closed, dosa-style.
It is late, here, now, too late, but I couldn't sleep, listening to the rain. There was snow in the forecast. There is now snow on the ground. (!!!) It won't last, will be gone by noon, but I've decided that once there's snow? It seems only right that cabbage shall follow.
Spiced Cabbage + Potatoes
adapted from Savoring the Spice Coast of India, by Maya Kaimal
Potato Notes: Whenever I can, I bake or boil extra potatoes one night, and dice the remainders into this dish, the next. Alternatively, I've successfully added the potatoes raw, along with a splash (1/4 cup) of water. Cover the pan, turn down the heat, and let the potatoes steam in the hot spiced oil until just tender, around 8-10 minutes, before adding the cabbage.
Kaimal's original reads Potatoes with Cabbage, and calls for 4 of the former. I can't get enough cabbage, and so make Cabbage with Potatoes, with just 2 spuds. Use whatever suits in the range below. Kaimal's original calls for 10 curry leaves, which add a lovely funk, if you've access.
2-4 medium boiling potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2" cubes
3 Tbs vegetable or coconut oil
2 tsp brown mustard seeds
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
2 dried red chilis (or 1/4 tsp chili flakes)
1/2 head medium green cabbage, sliced into thin ribbons
2 tsp ground coriander
1/4 tsp turmeric
1/8 tsp cayenne
1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
1-2 Tbs. fresh lemon juice, to taste
Boil potatoes in salted water for 8-10 minutes, or until barely tender. Drain and set aside.
In a large wok or heavy skillet with a lid, heat oil over a hottish medium. When it shimmers, add the mustard and cumin seeds, and cover. When the seeds begin to pop, 60-90 seconds, add the dried whole chilis and curry leaves, if using, and fry for just a few seconds. Add the cubed potatoes, sliced cabbage, remaining spices, and salt. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon water over all, then stir well to coat potatoes and cabbage with spices.
Stir regularly over medium heat, adjusting if necessary to keep from burning, until cabbage and potatoes are meltingly tender, about 8 minutes. Around the 6 minute mark, give a good squeeze of lemon juice directly over the pan, let burble briefly, scrape interesting bits off the bottom, and let cook the final 2 minutes or so. Test a few of the larger potato pieces and cabbage threads for tenderness and seasoning, add any additional salt and/or lemon juice to taste, and eat, hot or at room temperature.