Snow in October: not an unknown in northeastern New York, where I live, but hardly a given. My first fall here, we had a dusting right before Halloween. My children were delighted; my husband and I laughed and took pictures. I didn’t have a garden yet.
I woke last Friday to a solid three-inch snowfall. Forecasts called for another 8 to 15 inches late Saturday. I should have dashed out to the garden Saturday morning, dug up the last of my parsnips, uprooted the few remaining peppers and tomatoes, done the final clean up for all the fragile vegetables that can’t soldier on while buried in snow. (Picking broccoli spears from under snow cover has, for reasons I can’t really explain, been one of my great garden pleasures. Kale and brussels sprouts can tolerate extreme cold, too.)
I didn’t do these chores. I was tired, I had kid chores to do, friends coming for dinner, and most of all, I didn’t want to believe the predictions. After all, the old saw about weather in my region is: “Don’t like the weather? Wait a minute. It will change.”
I averted my eyes from my snow-covered garden beds as I drove out the driveway Saturday afternoon. It was drizzling, chilly, but nothing dramatic. While I waited for my daughter to finish her ballet rehearsal, rain turned to snow. By the time I arrived at the market to get the last few ingredients for the dinner menu, the snow was coming down wet, thick, and heavy. The roads were slick, and our trip home was treacherous. I had my husband call the friends who were due for dinner. He gave them an out, which they gratefully took: their car was already stuck at the bottom of their driveway, resisting the 100-yard climb up their hill. Dinner with friends shifted seamlessly into snowbound family movie night.
When I planned this dinner, I knew I needed something I could pull together quickly. I thought a bouillabaisse would be elegant enough to make my guests feel special but quick to produce. (To be clear: this is not a true bouillabaisse. I did not gather the requisite assortment of Mediterranean fish, nor prepare my own stock. That would have entailed too much time and too many non-sustainable species.) Nigel Slater, a favorite British chef and food writer, saved me with his quick version, and even allowed me to pay bittersweet homage to my garden’s end.
FEEDING: Slater’s recipe calls simply for fresh, ripe chiles, which are chopped up into a fine salsa, slathered onto toasted slices of baguette, and floated into his rich, tomato-ey broth. What chiles? Sweet? Spicy? I had both in my refrigerator, left from the last harvest two weeks ago, and decided to combine them. I used a mix of chocolate bell, red ripened shishito and half a jalepeño for a total of about 1/2 cup finely chopped pepper. The result was magical, adding a summery, grassy freshness to a warming winter meal. Whenever you consume fish, try to choose responsibly. Download the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch guides to aid your selection.
Bouillabaisse-like Fish Stew (adapted from Nigel Slater)
3 large cloves of garlic
2 tbsp olive oil
6 anchovy fillets (I like the salt packed kind, but canned will do, too)
2 inch long sliver orange peel
2 bay leaves
3 sprigs of fresh thyme
1/2 cup dry sherry
15 oz can whole tomatoes
15 oz can crushed tomatoes
1 quart fish or vegetable stock
1-1/2 pounds firm white fish, cut into 1 inch cubes
1/2 pound peeled and deveined raw shrimp
For the toasts
8 thin slices of baguette
1/2 cup seeded and finely chopped fresh peppers, of your choosing; I like a mix of sweet and spicy
1/2 cup finely chopped cilantro
4 scallions, finely chopped
Peel and finely slice the garlic and cook in a deep pan with the oil, anchovies, orange peel, ba,y and thyme till the garlic is golden and the anchovy has dissolved. Pour in the sherry, boil rapidly for a minute or two, then add the tomatoes and the stock. Bring to a boil, then simmer gently for 20 minutes or until it has reduced and thickened a bit. (You can make the soup ahead up to this point, store covered in the refrigerator until ready to finish, and bring back to the simmer just before you're ready to eat.)
Add the fis, and continue to simmer. After about 5 minutes, add the shrimp. As they begin to turn pink (the fish should be opaque by now), add the mussels. Cover with a lid and, when the mussels open, serve in wide bowls with the prepared toasts (see below) tucked among the fish.
To prepare the toasts, toast the bread. Stir together the chopped peppers, cilantro, and scallions. Divide the mixture over the toasts.
NEEDING: Houseguests came a couple of weeks ago, and as a thank you, left me a pint jar of Russian Black tomatoes they’d grown, dried and salted. I’ve been adding them to salads, pasta sauces, and even eating them out of the jar as snacks. They’re addictive. When I asked how they were made, my friend said: simple -- slice them, then dry in a countertop dehydrator, and sprinkle with fine salt. "What kind of dehydrator?" I asked, having never used one before. “I have no idea,” was his response. “A cheap one.” This inexpensive Nesco model would do nicely to add this simple method of preservation to my repertoire for next year’s garden.
READING: My potatoes are holding nicely on sheets of newspaper on open wire shelves in a dark corner of my basement. Someday, I’m tempted to really expand my winter vegetable storage. Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage of Fruits & Vegetables by Mike and Nancy Bubel is a thorough primer on designing your own root cellar, another one of those lost arts worth reviving.
Image by shoesfullofdust/Dylan Foley via Flickr