Winter pleasures: A crackling fire, a green and white azalea, and daydreams of nothing much at all. When you're hungry, there's a savory vegetable tagine simmering in the kitchen.
How do you make the most of winter?
Oh, I know: It’s tempting to defy it. To head south where turquoise water laps white sand beaches. To fill grey rooms with pots of riotous tulips and hyacinths. To wear bright colors as a talisman against the darkness.
But, we could make the most of winter.
This is the season for stillness. For silence after the delirious cacophony of the holidays. For stepping deliberately off the merry go round. For slowing down so we can see more clearly. For unplugging so we can dream our own dreams. No chattering, no glowing screens, no distractions.
Philippe Starck, the prolific cutting edge designer, told Pico Iyer how he stays ahead of the curve. “’I never read any magazines or watch TV,’ he said....‘Nor do I go to cocktail parties, dinners or anything like that.’ He lived outside conventional ideas," Iyer wrote, "because ‘I live alone mostly, in the middle of nowhere.’” (See “The Joy of Quiet,” The New York Tiimes, January 1, 2012)
So let’s take a moment to embrace the stillness of this cold, goose-pimpled season. Right now I'm nestling…
In front of a crackling fire, listening to the hissing and popping of hickory logs, daydreaming of…nothing much at all. I'm stroking the silky hair of an old dog who’s dreaming her own deep dreams. Strong legs running through the grass, thrusting as she dashes and whirls around the heels of skittish horses.
I wonder if she's laughing in her sleep?
Tonight when the cold wind blows and an icy rain beats against the window, I’ll wrap up in layers of blankets and woolly shawls. Some are light as woven gossamer, others are thick and heavy with fringe. Each conjures a memory: a peat fire burning in the hearth of an Irish pub, a blustery winter walk over the Pont Saint-Louis in Paris, a roadside shop in Goa where Kashmiri shawls unfurled like upended baskets of flowers.
This might be armchair traveling at its best.
Make no mistake. I adore scarlet tulips and the honeyed scent of hyacinths, but it feels a little early for spring. Right now the winter white azalea fits my contemplative mood; even the narcissus seems too opulent. In the corner the silver leaves of the olive tree, wintering inside, frame the garden bust, mossy green and crowned with a circle of creamy ivy.
Is she is amused by the squirrels scrambling across the table outside, or does her secretive smile hide more private memories?
And when hunger strikes, an even more delicious version of the Root Vegetable Tagine lures me into the kitchen. Out with the turnips and raisins, in with fire-roasted peppers and oil-cured black olives. Gorgeous preserved lemon brings in the sunshine as do the Moroccan spices. As the tagine simmers over a low flame, the aroma of well-being wafts through the house.
How do you make the most of winter?
Winter Squash Tagine with Fire-Roasted Peppers, Black Olives and Preserved Lemon
Serves 4 to 6
1-1/2 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium onions, peeled and thinly sliced
1 or 2 medium carrots, peeled and thinly sliced on the diagonal
1 large tomato, peeled, seeded and thinly sliced
1 -1/2 cups new potatoes, skin left on, cut into ¾-inch chunks
1-1/2 cups butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into ½-inch cubes
8 large shiitake mushrooms, stems removed, caps cleaned and thickly sliced
1 cup canned chickpeas, rinsed and skins rubbed off
1 poblano pepper, roasted, peeled and cut into thin strips (see note)
1 sweet red Bell pepper, roasted, peeled and cut into thin strips (see note)
8 oil-cured black olives, pitted and torn in half
6 to 8 strips of preserved lemon peel
4-inch stick cinnamon, broken in half
1-1/2 cups chicken broth
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon garlic, finely chopped
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon saffron threads
½ teaspoon ground ras-el-hanout
Garnish: Chopped cilantro (optional)
Accompaniment: Harissa (optional, see note)
1. Rub the bottom and sides of an enameled cast iron pot with 1-1/2 tablespoons olive oil. Starting at the bottom, layer the onions, carrots, tomato slices, new potatoes, butternut squash, and shiitake mushrooms in the pot. Add the strips of roasted pepper and sprinkle the chickpeas and black olives over the vegetables. Arrange the preserved lemon peel on top. Tuck the cinnamon pieces into the vegetables.
2. In a bowl, whisk together the chicken broth, 1 tablespoon olive oil, and the rest of the spices. Pour the mixture evenly over the vegetables.
3. Put the pot over a high flame and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, cover and cook for 30 to 40 minutes, until the vegetables are very tender. (If using an earthenware tagine, soak the bottom in water for several hours. Place a flame tamer on a cold burner and put the pot on top. Keep the flame low to medium low as you cook. The dish will take at least 1-1/2, but more likely 2 hours.)
4. Serve in bowls with crusty bread, sprinkled with cilantro and a spoonful of harissa, if desired.
Note: Go here to learn how to prepare roasted peppers.