Days of Squash and Cocoa: Eating Locally in February

The jars are emptying out here. Despite the fact that it was an unbelievably awful gardening year, somehow the canning jars filled up all the same, to the point that we actually ran out of pint and smaller jars. Now, boxes and cabinets are filling up with emptied jars, put away until I begin putting things up again.

I still dig out the canning kettle once in a while in the winter - some apples going slightly soft inspire some applesauce now and again, but the season of preservation has not yet begun, and the time of emptying is upon us. Every day, our stocks decline.

Every year there is a favorite jam in my household - one that came out particularly well. One year it was the cranberry-vanilla, another raspberry-black currant. Two years ago it a cinnamon-greenage plum jam that was superb and spicy. This year it was the fall raspberry jam - the strawberries were good but a little watery (we had 26 inches of rain in June, so that's not too surprising), the cherry was nice, the peach-apricot-almond very good, but the raspberry - well, that was something special. Accordingly, it has been extremely difficult to get anyone to eat the other kinds of jam while any raspberry lingered. But now we are on an enforced diet of the other kinds, which is really not so terrible (don't tell anyone but I've got two jars put aside for hamantaschen at purim, and one for my husband who discovered the pleasures of raspberry jam on his occasional luxuriant toats with nutella.)

Now we put the strawberry rhubarb on our toast - and it is a perfectly nice jam, superior, i think, to any I could buy. But we can still remember the taste of the raspberry, which was precisely the flavor of late summer, those days with the warm sun on your back and the cool breeze on your front that we spent picking berries. It was the taste of a moment, of greeness just turning red, of ripeness and the lush smell of harvest. How could we not want all that back?

It was a dreadful tomato year, but we still have two dozen quarts of sauce - no salsa though. Not a great pickle year either, but there are still pickles on the shelves. I've got two more jars of tomatillo sauce for enchiladas, three or four of pickled hot peppers. But everything is in decline - I debate whether to ration out the best stuff, or just to push through it and endure. We do some of both - bringing out that last hidden jar of salsa on a particularly wintery and grey day, to be devoured with homemade tortilla chips.

The root cellar is emptying out too. The wet meant a poor potato harvest, and we will be out of potatoes by mid-March, I suspect, which has not happened in years. The last few sweet potatoes are set aside for starting slips, the cabbages are eaten, the carrots are fading and while we've still got acorn squash galore, the butternuts and few hubbards are long past.

There is plenty of corn left for grinding, and some to feed the animals, and amaranth as well. The barn is full of hay, but the best hay is running lower than I like - most of the hay was put up late last year due to the terrible weather. We have garlic yet, and onions aplenty, but I'm out of sage and the basil plant I overwintered has a hangdog, ratty look that bodes ill for its future. There's a sense of moving past prime.

Now is the time for eating things that weren't everyone's first favorites. The Hokkaido squash, the winter luxury pumpkins, the Kuri and Hopi Orange, the Hubbard and the butternut are our favorites. Now comes the relentless flow of acorn squash - because that's what's left. Baked and stuffed, baked and spiced, mashed, souped, pied...

The carrots are softening and more and more go to the rabbits and the goats, and the kid eat parsnips in their soup instead. There are still good apples, but there are mealy ones too - and these I make into sauce or baked apples. I could give them to the animals, of course, or compost them - but we grew this food, and good cooks can transform second choices into first ones.

Once upon a time, February, March and April could be hungry times. Once upon a time, without stores to turn to, late winter and early spring were the times of running out for real - I am down to second choices, but once, people were down far deeper than that. I still have abundant stores, but it seems a point of honor to a memory of the past not to waste them - to eat the food that is still good, to try and remember that it is hunger that is tiresome, never dinner just because you've enjoyed it before.

I could buy other food - and in fact, when my local farmstand reopens in March, from their more perfect stocks of potatoes, I will replenish part of my supply. We buy greens and other supplements from the farmer's market. We're not suffering from bad food - but we limit all of these outside additions. A slight sense of fatigue at a local diet in February is a normal thing, and not a bad one, I think. It is part of the process - I'm grateful that I can get locally grown arugula for a crisp salad in winter, but I don't want to eat that everyday, delicious as it is - I want to remember what February is, the time of eating what you've put up Pushing me to make new and better things from parsnips is not a tragedy - it isn't even a major inconvenience. And the truth is, that eating locally means living through February and March when it has lost some of its luster.

In November, we long for the taste of squash, my kids look forward to cabbage pie and jam on bread. By now, my children want to know how long before rhubarb and strawberries and asparagus - and the answer is "a while yet." My local supermarket has these things aplenty, these signs of an artificial spring from far away. And the part of me that is also sick of cabbage and brussels sprouts, of beets and acorn squash could buy the supermarket strawberries and asparagus just this once - but I know also that they would disappoint.

This, in the end, is why I do it - because of the intensity of the experience. The first gathered greens in spring aren't half as good if you've been buying salad mix from California all winter long. Asparagus cut from the bed in my front garden is so dramatically more delicious than anything I can get - so sweet we eat it raw - that we'd rather wait. Nothing I can eat in this time and season will taste as good as the new produce of a new time. For that, I can only wait, and if it isn't better, well, there's honor in eating the acorn squash before its spoils.

I am fortunate, my house is full of food. There is popcorn that we grew all summer, and warm cocoa after an afternoon skating with friends. There is jam, even if not the raspberry, and stuffed squash, which is pretty delicious, even if we've been eating it for three months. There is cabbage and there are beets, shredded raw with slivered apples and mixed with dressing and made into tart-crisp salad with the last of the overwintered parsley - no, it isn't the first spring salad, with pale new radishes and tiny lettuce thinnings against spinach and bitter-sweet dandeliions, but it will do.

We can't have it all - I'd rather have cream of parsnip soup, creamy with goat's milk and the rich sweetness of parsnips roasted with garlic and thyme now, deep, complex, even if familiar, than I would have shallow and empty asparagus, fat and from far away, with only a pale hint of what I know to be the possibility of asparagus. I'd rather, of course, be able to go out and cut asparagus right now, today. I'd rather not wait. But now is the time of waiting.

The jars empty and accumulate, the woodpile gets smaller and we watch winter wax and wane, a cup of tea or cocoa in our hands. We get impatient - a friend joked to me that she was ready to go outside and melt the ground with her hairdryer, and I knew just what she meant. The boys talk longingly of what they'll do when spring finally comes, of baseball and tree climbing and seining crawfish in the creek. They still are enjoying skates and sleds, but they are more and more turning to the time when the chicks will hatch, the kids will be born and they can run in the grass again. We talk of strawberry shortcake for Daddy's birthday and asparagus pie for just any day, and sunshine on your skin and swimming lessons.

And that's ok - dreaming of spring, dreaming of the next thing is part of heightening our pleasure. So we wait, and we watch the birds come back and the days get longer. And on the windowsills, we watch, nibbling our squash, the first tiny leaves unfurl in the lettuce seedlings that someday, crisp and cool, will fill our plates and overflow them.



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And here's me at the other end of the earth with tomatoes up to my ears - drying, pasteing, salsaing, etc. Ditto beans, eggplants and corn

We don't get snow and can grow salads all year round, and we cant store root vegetables very well. But they can overwinter reasonably well in the ground. They never really get that lovely sweetness from a frost.

We have to wait for asparagus and rhubarb too and it is definately better than shop-bought

Back to todays job - zucchini pickles and tomato chutney.

I'll put a jar aside for you.

Just a quick note - the date of your post is wrong (which also means it will sit on the top of the Last 24 Hour page for a day or so).

Please can you tell us how you start sweet potato slips. I tried last year but it didn't work.

Although my life has very little in common with your domestic endeavors, I've been enjoying your blog, and linking friends and family to various posts, since you joined SB. This post reminded me of learning to make our family's traditional white Easter borscht from my grandmother. When I was a kid, borscht was something you suffered through in order to be allowed to delve into the chocolate and jelly beans. I didn't understand why there was so much meat and onions, and not much else - it seemed weird for a major holiday meal to be so boring compared to Thanksgiving or Christmas. As my taste buds and I grew up I started to enjoy the borscht as an annual treat, and eventually started making it for friends on the other side of the country when I couldn't go home at Easter. But it wasn't until a conversation with my mom a few years ago that I finally understood the drabness of the ingredients - of course, onions were all that was left in late March after a long winter of eating out of the cellar! I'm sure this sounds ridiculously naive to you and many of your readers, but as a city girl raised mostly on Wegmans, I had honestly never thought about it before. I appreciate my borscht even more now.

On the other hand, having grown up in western NY I did know *something* about the seasonality of plants. When I moved to Seattle I was astounded and enraptured by the herb garden that my roommate planted in the front yard. Being able to just walk outside and grab a stalk or two from the rosemary hedge at any time of year seemed miraculous. Back in the land of Real Winter now, I miss that. I'm trying to console myself by starting an indoor herb garden, but I also think about how exciting it will be in just a few months when the farmers markets start up again and everything smells good in the produce section. I hope you enjoy your spring dreams as you munch on home-grown popcorn (yum!). :)

I keep a couple of window boxes for growing winter salad greens for this reason. Usually the sturdier types like Romaine, endive that will put up with creamy dressings.

You need pickles? Crikeys, we've got plenty, including the reasonably crispy kind made with grape leaves. Northern Pickling and Mideast Prolific, even the chickens refused to eat any more cukes come October. I couldn't grow enough dill to keep up.

The wood shed is looking emptier than I would like too. Our winters used to have the occasional weirdly warm day every few weeks, or it would feel warm/dry enough that you could do outdoor chores and split some more from the logpile in the woodlot, take down some dying trees during the winter pruning. Recently, we've been getting winters that start late in December but stay really freezing cold (that horrible damp cold that is so bothersome) all the way through February before we catch a break. Then in March we get maybe one week of cold after a couple weeks of thaw, but it ends early. Unfortunately not before we've exhausted our wood shed's capacity in late January. Splitting in this weather, cold and humid, makes you feel like you've got a bout of croup on its way, so no one wants to do it.

Next house will seriously have passive solar with geothermal backup. Wood stove to be used for cooking only. I'm getting too old for this.

I'm amazed that your basil plant is hanging on at all. I rooted a cutting in the fall and it did fine for a bit, but then it succumbed, as usual, to the poor light and cold in the house. The kitchen window sill is just too cold, it seems, for my basil to live past Thanksgiving or so. And I live in the south, where my rosemary thrives outdoors year-round.

This is exactly how I've been thinking.

We don't have the space to grow what you do. So, I have to get creative.

This year I plan on putting the word out that I'd LOVE to barter my homemade bread, cookies, fresh herbs etc. for fruits from trees that aren't sprayed.

While I live used to be orchard as far as the eye can see. But most who still have a tree or two don't really use their fruit, and have so much left over. I cringe when I walk by and see peaches, apples and the like just falling from their branches.

I'll be freezing and canning so much more this year. And I'm going to give drying a go as well.

My beloved flower gardens will be growing squash that I can winter over.

I will admit that I have joined an organic fruit and veggie co-op as I continue to make Parker's blenderized feeds.

While the produce is organic it is also straight from California and Oregon. sigh.

But I'm not too sure you can find much of anything locally here in Utah until about May.

Maybe I need to dig out that grow box thingie I have stashed somewhere....

Here is our midwinter inventory.

If it look braggy it's not meant to be. It falls short of a number of really good suggestions from Sharon and we'll be watching for opportunities to upgrade.

Haven't been canning but I did freeze some chili (made too much) and have planted a number of flats of early vegs: chard, bok choi, kale, lettuce, leeks, parsnips, peas, favas, red cabbage, green cabbage, beets. Yes, we transplant beets. They don't seem to mind. And we have set out peaches, apricots, and the last of the cherries, so there are now only two slots left in the planned 38-tree orchard, which are waiting for persimmons. One of the cherries, a Bing, replaces an earlier Bing that up and died on us. So we in Oregon think of winter as farm time, too! :)

Wow, what a beautifully written, evocative sort of post. I would like this experience for my children, but there is no way we could ever put up stores for the winter beyond a few jars of "extra" so we make do with buying mostly seasonal food. Great post.

A note to Jess --- We spent two years figuring out the easiest way to start sweet potato slips, but it's actually quite easy. Basically, you just partially submerge sweet potatoes in cups of water. The tricky part, I've found, is that they need to be quite warm (which may be difficult in the winter if you heat with wood like we do.) We ended up starting our plants on a heat mat with great results. You can read more details on our blog at

This post is exactly what I've been living! As we start to finish up our winter stores, I've been dreaming at night of the bee hives being overturned and their honey being stolen by bears. We ate our last butternuts and frozen peas and broccoli last week, but we still have scads of sweet potatoes and garlic and green beans and pesto. I've been hoarding our bits of pizza sauce all winter, so we've still got quite a few left, but the frozen asparagus is just about gone. Our diet becomes simpler... But at least the hens are starting to pick up on their laying!

One of the things I have never understood about canning (or other large-batch preserving) is trusting the end product to be edible.

You're making a huge batch of food with a recipe you've never tried - what if you don't like it? How do you know if this years jelly flavor combinations will work? What do you do if your pickles come out slimy instead of crisp (which apparently a batch of ours did)?

A friend and I once tried the once-a-month-cooking system. I couldn't doctor the resulting beef stroganoff enough to make it worth eating. The enchiladas were just repulsive. I don't even remember what the other dishes were, but I remember being soundly disappointed. Such a loss of food, time, and money.

Is it just experience? Trial and error? A willingness to eat things other people might call "icky"? (Alluding to another one of Sharon's stories.)

By curiousalexa (not verified) on 14 Feb 2010 #permalink

My food stores are way down ... too small a garden still to have as much as we need to store. We're down to Jerusalem artichokes (and not many of those because the ground froze before I could dig most of them out), 4 butternut squash, 2 pumpkins, a large bag of frozen ancho peppers, and the various dried herbs. We buy some fruits and veggies but only things we could have stored and eaten this late if we'd had them ... things like cabbage, carrots, onions, potatoes, apples, and oranges. So like you and your family, we are looking forward to the new crop of spring veggies and fruits. I know spring will be here in a month or so for us, but it's snowing today ...

Alexa, you can try these recipes in smaller quantities ahead, you know. I'm not sure I'd make a ton of enchiladas until I'd made some enchiladas I liked before. It sounds like you were taking large recipes and using them as is untried? You can always cut them down.

Personally, I think it is pretty hard to screw up jam too badly unless you burn it, or put something fairly weird in it - I tend to assume that all my jam will be good (and I taste it as I'm cooking it down and add or subtract if need be). In general, I make my jam with a lot less sugar than most recipes call for.

The same goes for tomato sauce or salsa - I'm pretty sure I'll like it because I taste it before it goes into the jar. I always taste food before it goes into the freezer, too.

I've screwed up pickles and had them go soft before, and we will compost them - there are techniques you can use to reduce the likelihood, but it does happen now and again.

Most recipes can pretty easily be halved, quartered or even more - there are a few that can't be, but generally they can. So unless you have no time and someone has given you a giant truckload of peaches or something, you shouldn't have to use recipes you've never seen before for a huge quantity without tasting.


To prevent disasters in canning happening a second time, I keep a kitchen notebook when I make a new recipe--I note what I did, cooking times, what the fruit or veg was like etc. so if I do end up with something inedible or not quite what I was going for, I can look back and try to figure out why....I also track quantities and dates I canned plus what was leftover or used up. That helps with planning.

We're gearing up for maple syrup season!! You can bake squash, onions and mealy apples together with a little butter and a drizzle of maple syrup for a warm, use-up-the leftovers meal. Spice it sweet and it's a great dessert or snack. It freezes ok if a little runny.

Timely post, Sharon. I was just feeling 'rich' because I had just made zucchini bread from the frozen, shredded zuc I still have. The food stores are getting low this time of year, but it helps me see what are the family favorites to keep in mind when planning this year's garden. I have enjoyed our dehyrated fruits and veggies, my canned jams (and I am with you--don't think it is possible to make a bad jam combo, or at least that has not happened yet), frozen and canned fruits and veggies.
My garden is not huge, but is fairly productive. I just received my SSE seeds, and look forward to using those, as well as the seed I saved from last season to plant this year. That is my first attempt as saving, rather than just buying new. We all needed to keep adding to our skill base for more self-sufficiency. I appreciate that you encourage that.
I did container planting for my herbs last year; that worked out great, but I did not try to overwinter them indoors. Another new skill to try. I did dry some by hanging them upside down in the basement which gave me my home-grown stuff much later into the winter.
With the coming of spring I can also use the solar oven more than I did over winter. Really, guys, your garden fresh organic produce cooking away in the sun---a bit of heaven on earth!
Oh, and thanks for the blog connection on the sweet potatoes--good information on something I have yet to try.

Lovely post, Sharon. As I was sitting here reading it, my junior high daughter, who just read Barbara Kingsolver's _Animal, Vegetable, Miracle_, came in to show me the timeline she made this afternoon of the book for her English class. It's a circular timeline showing the seasonal food eaten through the seasons. She gets it! She's about to begin her second year of raising chickens, with a foray into meat production this year. And now she says she wants me to teach her vegetable gardening.

It reminds me of something my linguistics professor said back when I was in grad school. Of the local Italian community, he said that the first generation of immigrants spoke Italian, the second understood it but didn't speak it, the third did neither, and the fourth turned up in his Italian classes to reclaim their heritage. My grandmother depended on that wintertime storage to feed her family, my mother supplemented it with a weekly grocery store trip, I use it to supplement the grocery store visit. I think my daughter may be reclaiming her heritage.

The new family farm in WV where much of my extended family has settled has eaten through most of the root cellered veggies from last year. I need to remind them that there are still parsnips out in the garden under the snow. Also still lots of jam and frozen blueberries. I am the last one to move up permentaly as I am still working in NC to pay the mortage and get this house sold. Can't wait to get there fulltime-June 18th by my figuring.

I grew excellent sweetpotato slips last year and will start more in a few weeks. We will about double the crop size as next year there should be 5 adults and one sweet potato loving 3 year old living fulltime on the farm. I gave a lot of slips away and folks were surprised how easy it was to grow their own sweets. I start mine horizonally in water in pyrex bread pans; I just found 3 more pans today on the give-away table in my community. They do need warmth to sprout as the great website mentioned above states-great pictures.

Beautiful post. I think I may need to make my husband read this one. :) I also think you need to put out a "Seasonal Eating" cookbook -- some of us are just clueless about what all to do with what is actually still available/storable in the frozen north during the winter. Your food posts always sound so yummy....

Ditto on the "don't make a huge batch until you've tried a small batch" advice. Seems to be a trifle hard to do with some things -- like jam -- but relatively easy with other things. I have several recipes that I've found somewhere, tried once, and made notes about what to change. Two or three tries later, if we still like it, it goes in the permanent recipe collection. If it still doesn't work for us, I toss it. Lots of good recipes out there -- no need to keep the ones that you just simply don't like.

I'm having a bit of the opposite problem. I put up a lot in 2008, only to discover that my husband would really rather buy it at the store. Why have dried local apples in February when you can buy them (no, he does not notice any taste difference).

Life is too short to argue about food. I've scaled back my preserving and gardening to provide for myself. He will eat what I fix, but it's mostly up to me to eat it all up.

Alexa - most of the recipes are pretty good, but do taste them before canning. Water, vinegar and sugar are cheap - I've thrown out a few of the brines before canning because I didn't like them. That said, nearly everything I've canned or frozen is edible. I've had some I will not make again, but very few that I've thrown out because it was so bad. Also be creative in how you use up something you didn't like.

The blueberry sauce (very marginal) is getting used up in some protein shakes as well as some drained yogurt (where I leave it in a mesh strainer overnight to remove excess whey). The tomato sauce is very thin and runny; a can of tomato paste helps its texture a lot as do some more seasonings. The frozen sweet pickled onions were great chopped up in tuna salad, not so great otherwise.

Dear Sharon, sometimes your posts really resonate with me and bring tears to my eyes, this is one of those. Thank you.

We are just emerging from the building phase for our house. the garden resembles nothing more than a freshly plowed field liberally strewn with rock and the occasionally bit of pipe left over from the builders. The ground is still wet but next week we hope to be able to plant the four apple and one damson trees and to get a start on marking out and digging the beds. By the end of the month our dining room should be transformed into a plant nursery as the poly tunnel will most certainly not go up in time to host the little darlings. We have plans for alternate accommodation for our tomatoes (hopefully they will survive an Irish Summer nestled against the south side of our house)and a couple of cold frames.

This was a great post! We don't do as good a job as your family of eating locally, but I can appreciate much of what you talk about. We are down to our last 2 jars of salsa and we're saving them for now. There may be enough spagetti sauce to get through another month or so, but we'll have several months without. The green beans are basically gone. We have enough black beans for one more round of soup. We have to move the empty jars to get to the last few full ones. We do buy from the grocery store to replace some staples - potatoes and dried beans mostly. We'll wait on the vegetables until they come from the garden though. The wait makes them that much more delicious.
The 12 or so flats of seeds that are growing in the living room and the greenhouse are being willed out of the ground by every member of the family. There's still snow on the ground outside (as of this morning), but spring is in my front window!

By FarmerAmber (not verified) on 15 Feb 2010 #permalink

I can't tell you how extremely fond I am, also, of toats with nutella!

:-) great word, I think. Just need somewhere to put it.

Perhaps it's a subliminal left over from the song? "Mairzy toats and dozy toats?"

By eulenspeigel (not verified) on 15 Feb 2010 #permalink

My monther used to sing that to me when I was a little girl in the 50s. I was in my 40s before I finally figured out the words were "Mares eat oats and does eat oats, but little lambs eat ivy" And she said the lyrics from the 60s were nonsense!