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Staying toasty in winter

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Why not get right to the point? I don’t like winter. It’s an annual refrain anyone who knows me has heard. The beauty of newly fallen snow aside, there are myriad reasons for my ill feelings about this season. I’m scrawny, with little body fat. Wearing layers of shirts and sweaters indoors, especially when cooking, is cumbersome. During cold weather, the blood circulation to my fingers and toes is compromised by a condition called Raynaud’s Syndrome. The digits turn white and feel numb, then a stinging pain sets in. Did I mention the absence of sunlight is a downer? Well, enough about me.

Food changes with the cycles of the season. The garden’s demise, now months past, is always painful for me—no more easy access to the herbs so essential to enhancing meals. The displays at the farmers market guide my cooking choices in fall and winter. Brussels sprouts, shallots, cabbages, cauliflower and broccoli, kale, and winey, pulpy grapes were in abundance in November and into early December. The New York Times published an interesting-sounding entrée of chicken thighs baked with shallots and little clusters of grapes that worked its way into my repertoire, even if it was a little awkward to have to use our hands to pick up and suck at those shriveled, intensely flavored grapes.

 As the temperatures dropped, I found that oven-roasting any number of vegetables until crisped and caramelized was good comfort food, as well as an undemanding method of cooking. A healthy drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil, flaky sea salt, freshly ground black pepper, and a good toss before being dumped onto a rimmed sheet pan was easy enough and worked well with shallots, sweet and fingerling potatoes, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, broccoli and later an assortment of winter squash.

Stews, soups, chicken pot pie and hearty pasta dishes all made appearances in different guises. I don’t like repetition or leftovers, so I played around with various ingredients and spice mixtures, changing up the dishes slightly each time I prepared them. Basically, I get through the winter months bulking up on substantial fare. Yet, the other morning, alone in the house, I had a craving for a dish I could sooner imagine eating at an outdoor table at a little bistro in the city, or better yet, France, on a warm spring day, rather than inside on a frigid one in the countryside. The Haas avocado (available year-round) sitting on a shelf in my fridge was a perfect specimen. When I cut it in half and lifted the pit out with the blade of a large chef’s knife, the creamy pale green flesh was without a blemish. Flawless.

This avocado toast trend cropped up suddenly in recent years and made its way onto more menus than you could count. I wasn’t sure what all the fanfare was about, except that it must have filled some gastronomic hole and well, it is delicious. In its most basic iteration, it is coarsely mashed, seasoned avocado atop well-toasted country bread. Sometimes a fried egg appeared as adornment. Then  anything went: chopped cherry tomatoes (when in season), thinly sliced cucumbers, a chiffonade of basil, crispy bacon.

I gave it a try. Some beautiful purple radishes from the farmers market, chopped into tiny cubes, would be my garnish. My avocado, also cubed, went into a bowl, and I stabbed at it with a spoon, careful not to mash it; I wanted a chunky, rustic texture. I added lime juice, flakey sea salt, a tiny amount of extra-virgin oil (for the richness) and minced scallions. Two slices of Beach Lake Bread ciabatta were well-toasted, until crunchy. I placed a healthy portion of the avocado mixture on each slice of bread, then garnished with the radish cubes. I felt some heat would be a welcome addition, so chose burgundy-colored Aleppo pepper flakes for zip. The silkiness of the avocado, brightened by the lime juice, against the crisp bread, and the snap of crunchy radish made for a cacophony of textures and tastes. I ate, looking out the dining room window and, though the skies were steel grey and the occasional snow flake drifted and swirled through the air, I felt lifted and thought “hope springs eternal,” or is it, “though winter seems eternal, there will be spring”?

Avocado Toast

Makes enough for 3 slices of toast

1 firm, ripe Haas avocado

Juice of ½ large lime, or more to taste

¼ teaspoon flakey sea salt, or more to taste

1 scallion, white and light green part, thinly sliced (or ½ teaspoon minced red onion)

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro

½ teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil

2 radishes, washed, ends trimmed, cut into very small cubes

3 slices ciabatta (or similar rustic) bread

Garnish: freshly ground black pepper, Aleppo (or other) chili pepper flakes, or fruity hot sauce, to taste

To finish: extra-virgin olive oil and flakey sea salt

Halve the avocado, remove and discard the pit, but don’t remove the skin. With the point of a sharp knife, score the avocado flesh one way, then turn 90° and score the other way. Using a tablespoon, scoop out the cubes and place in a medium bowl. With the spoon, gently chop at the avocado, breaking it up, but being careful not to mash it. Add the lime juice, sea salt, scallion and cilantro, and then drizzle with the ½ teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil. Chop at the mixture again, turning it gently to incorporate all the ingredients. Toast the ciabatta until golden and crunchy. Pile the avocado mixture atop the three slices of toast and sprinkle the radish cubes evenly over the bread. Garnish with black pepper, chili flakes or a few squirts of hot sauce. To finish, drizzle with a tiny amount of extra-virgin olive oil and a pinch of flakey sea salt. Serve immediately. 

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