Now that the end-of-year holidays are half-over and the New Year approaches, it is time to look at the traditions that have carried us through this busy time.
I am thinking of the traditional red and green motif that is so prevalent at this time of year. Red and green are the colors of winter holly and berries, those bright colors that stand in such stark contrast to the white snow that blankets the frozen northeast from where many of our holiday rituals have been begun – since the days of early settlement in the New World.
But as I peruse the bounty of offerings at the farmers’ market at this festive time of year, I am reminded that there are many more lovely and distinctly edible colors to choose from as we prepare our tables for feasting and celebration.
My table has been bedecked for months with the orange, yellow and green hues of winter squash, from the sturdy Kabocha to the durable turbans, orange Kuri and enormous golden banana and Tahitians.
These colors have been a background for many family celebrations, and one by one the vegetables and fruits have been roasted and served as part of a delicious meal, from soup to main course.
My beautiful gooseneck gourds have turned from green to tan, as have the smaller decorative gourds that are tempting to turn into various craft projects.
Purple, orange and yellow carrots have been the basis of soup stocks, chopped underpinnings for roasted fish dishes as well as lovely butter-infused side dishes.
The last of the fall tomatoes, in shades of yellow, white, orange, pink and purple are still a hardy mainstay for adding to pasta and soup, or for simmering in rich pasta sauces.
Winter citrus fruit, including tangerines, pommelo grapefruit and the sweet, seeded orange-grapefruit cross known as a “cocktail grapefruit” are ripe and ready for breakfast or winter fruit salads with avocados and cilantro.
Yellow guavas are fragrant and add an exotic note to the home, where they can be left in any room to add a tropical scent to the air. Guavas are delicious sliced and eaten with seeds and skin, or blended into refreshing drinks, with or without an alcohol accompaniment.
Ripe, soft, bright orange Hachiya persimmons are at their peak during the cold months. These delicate fruits are carefully brought to market ready to eat, or to take home and freeze. They can be eaten in a semi-thawed state and take on the consistency of soft custard, scooped out of their skins with a spoon and eaten plain or ladled with syrup.
Fall’s soft dates are beginning to dry and darken, but it is still possible to find some of the semi-soft dates that taste like spun sugar. Dates at this stage, called the “rutab” stage, which occurs when the crunchy, fresh fruits begin to soften and take on depth and sweetness, are impossible to find commercially due to their extreme fragility. Rutab dates are a rare treat and they can be frozen for later consumption. Paired with fresh pecans, also from the market, they are an outstanding winter treat.
This is the perfect time of year to make soup with fresh dried beans. Heirloom beans, some of which have been classified as “endangered” and placed on the “ark” of the Slow Food watchlist, are nearly extinct Native American beans. These have been preserved and rediscovered by farmers such as Bill and Barbara Spencer of Windrose Farm, and come in a kaleidoscope of colors that are easy to cook and surprisingly varied in taste and texture. Winter bean soups made with these beans no longer involve the overnight ritual of soaking and cooking. Instead, they can be prepared for eating within one hour and added to any number of rich winter dishes including soup, stews and braises.As we gather with family and friends for long winter evenings of eating and visiting, it is good to remember the bounty that comes from California farms, and to grace our homes and tables with the winter colors of the earth, so abundant and varied, that appear at markets through the short days of winter’s season.