Gurney’s, Burpee, Garden Fairy, Park Seed, Pepper Joe, Annie’s Annuals, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, The Cook’s Garden Plant and Seed and Willamette Valley Hop Farms catalogs will arrive in my mail box in the next few weeks and my soul feels warm as my body chills. Seeing glossy pictures of summer fruit instantaneously transports my mind to summers past. Memories of a Cherokee Purple heirloom tomato picked from the garden vine, cut lengthwise with my Swiss Army pocket knife and wrapped with three leaves of Thai basil begins to warm my body. As I continue my daydream, I dreamily pop the taste of summer into my mouth and feel the red and purple juice moisten my beard making the winter snow and bitter cold bearable knowing; my seed catalogs and seed-sowing season are on the way.
Winter is not a death but seasonal rebirth. The bitter and frozen emptiness of winter offers the gardener and chef an opportunity for reflection and personal growth. As the trees and garden lay dormant I begin mental work. Which crop will replace the tomato in their beds ensuring proper rotation and a healthy, pest-free yield? Which plants belong on the northeastern side of the garden to ensure their height does not block the sun from the smaller plants? “Forget the pole beans and sweet peas,” I decide because no one in my family eats them. Extra carrots for ginger-carrot soup, which freeze well and taste great, are a must-grow.
Winter is the season of mental and physical survival. After spending seven years living in South Dakota I am reminded of our family’s fall tradition of adding a survival duffle bag to the trunk of our car. The bag contained a wool blanket, waterproof matches, sterno, a flashlight, radio, bottles of water and canned chili—things one needs to survive a 30-degree below zero night in the middle of nowhere.
My North Idaho mental survival duffle bag this winter are garden books and seed catalogs, cook books and slow roasted beans, the blog picture of my family in last year’s garden and knowing I will plant seeds in starter beds next month supported by grow lights in the basement of my home.
To survive this winter, I open my mental survival bag and wait for the trees to bud, plants to appear in their beds, the first crocus flower to pop through the snow and bugs and birds to reappear.
This year new additions to the garden excite and energize my winter blues. I plan to raise quail for meat and eggs (their poop is great organic fertilizer) and add edible flowers to the garden. This spring I will grow hops over the arbor gate that opens into the garden to brew beer from this fall and pinot noir grapes on the side of the house for wine. I plan to grow mushrooms in my kitchen and am searching the covenants in my neighborhood deciding if beekeeping is in my future. Please read future columns to discover my success or failures in these endeavors.
Loyal readers of the column might remember an article written by this author about my struggle with vitamin D and depression. Recent tests, after a daily dose of 6000 international units of the vitamin, show an increase of 30 points in my vitamin D level last month.
My seasonal depression is gone. I strongly urge all readers who find long winters in North Idaho to affect their mood in a negative way, visit their family practitioner to assess their vitamin D level. This simple test changed my life for the better.
Speaking of North Idaho in winter, it’s snowing again. I lace up my boots and put a beanie on my head in preparation to remove the 11 inches of recently fallen snow from the driveway. I start the snow blower, put it into gear and begin the task at hand.
Over the scent of burning gas and fresh snow, I smell garlic and onions cooking as my wife prepares a comforting pot of vegetarian minestrone soup using the last of the canned tomatoes and dried herbs from this past years garden.
Minestrone is an easy and fulfilling comfort meal to prepare on a cold January night when paired with homemade buttermilk biscuits and a tall glass of milk. Here is the recipe:
Chele’s Vegetarian Minestrone Soup
(A note from my wife: this recipe is a starting point depending on my mood, what I can find at the grocery store and what is in the pantry. I add or delete ingredients at-will. The outcome is always a surprise)
¼ C olive oil
1 medium onion, sliced
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 carrots, sliced
2 celery stalks, sliced—including leaves
1 leek, halved length-wise then sliced
1 can (28 oz) whole tomatoes (or home-canned tomatoes)
1 qt vegetable stock
Seasoning to taste—fresh parsley, dried basil, dried oregano, salt and pepper
2 cans (15 oz) cannellini beans
2 C bok choy—shredded
2 medium zucchini, sliced
½ C small shell pasta
Fresh Parmesan cheese (omit for vegan diners)
Heat oil over medium-high heat in a large pot. Add onions, garlic, carrots, celery and leek. Sauté until vegetables are slightly caramelized. Add tomatoes including juice to the pot and mash into bite-size pieces with a fork as they cook. Stir in stock and add dry herbs. Bring to boil then reduce heat. Cover and simmer 20 minutes. Stir in beans and cabbage and simmer 10 more minutes. Add zucchini, parsley and pasta and simmer uncovered for 10 more minutes. Ladle into bowls and shave cheese over the soup before serving.