Sweet, sweet winter



It sure is winter. The snow, when first falling in thick, wet, pristine flakes, is stunning and magical to see. And imagining a cognac snifter warming in my hand as I stand by the fireplace we don’t have can be a pleasure; otherwise, winter is my least favorite season of the year.

It’s interesting to explore the changes in how (and what) we cook as each season rolls in. For most of the year, farmers’ markets dictate what we prepare, and hopefully set our imaginations flying.

There are more than a dozen farmers’ markets in Sullivan County. Some are large and bustling, like the Callicoon and Narrowsburg markets, where many vendors gather to sell bread and pastries, soap, local honey, homemade cheese, flowers and plants, wine, liquor and—most important—produce of every variety. The vast selection of fruits and vegetables is a lovely thing to behold.

Other farmers’ markets are small Mom and Pop venues, selling just what they grow on their own property. At least one market is open every day of the week from early spring through the summer/fall, providing myriad options for both weekenders and long-time locals.

Whether you live near or pass through Roscoe, Callicoon, Barryville, Kauneonga Lake, Liberty, Pine Bush or Narrowsburg—to name a few—there is a market where you can stop and pick up that season’s freshly grown and picked fare.

But when we are in the thick of winter, we depend upon local groceries or what we’ve managed to store from our fall harvests. Potatoes, parsnips, turnips, sweet potatoes and carrots make their appearances at the supermarket, as do some sturdy winter greens such as chard, kale and collards, leeks and green and purple cabbages.

Yes, it’s cold and damp in the house, but just the scent of food on the stovetop or baking in the oven is warming.

My favorite dish to make this time of year is oven-roasted vegetables, whether root or in the Cruciferae family—meaning cauliflower and broccoli. Drizzled with good, fruity extra-virgin olive oil and seasoned vigorously with flaky sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, the natural sugars in the vegetables caramelize and their flavor deepens substantially.

And now it comes time for full disclosure. It’s cold, windy and icy at home in Sullivan County as of this writing, but my Country Home is currently far away. It’s winter as well where I am in Oaxaca, Mexico. When we awaken (and, later, head to bed), it’s quite cool, in the low to mid-50s. By mid-day, the temps hover around the low 80s, and the sun is plentiful.

Oaxaca has plenty of farmers’ markets, both outdoors on certain days of the week and indoors daily. The variety of fruits and vegetables—some known and others to be discovered—is staggering, and I like nothing better than to walk among the booths searching for the perfect avocado or mango. Quite a few vendors recognize me now and point me to, or hand me, what they know I have come to purchase often and in what state I want it. I know their prices are fair (and mindbogglingly low) and they know to write down the total for me on a slip of paper because my Spanish is muy malo (that is, bad).

I will add that a handful of the fruit and vegetable sellers, in an attempt to cater to the many outsiders visiting at this time of year, import a few items not readily available in Mexico. You can find Granny Smith apples, prewashed lettuce and other greens in plastic bags, and even navel oranges from Florida. Why you would purchase the last I don’t understand, as the oranges and mandarins in Oaxaca are as juicy, sweet and tasty as could be.

Yesterday I went in search of sweet potatoes. I had soup in mind. Whether you are living upstate or in the city, you can find sweet potatoes at both farmers’ markets and supermarkets this time of year. Here, they are available in orange, which we’re all used to, but also in deep purple. Sometimes the purple ones are regular potatoes and other times they are sweet. You can find out by scraping off a tiny bit of skin to reveal the color beneath. I picked up two of each color; all four of them large and twisted, looking just a little bit like alien vegetables.

Cooking and eating are universal. They do some things differently here in Oaxaca, particularly in their use of local herbs and spices, but I have found we have a common ground in that we all want to eat well, heartily, and hopefully with a few good friends.

Sweet potatoes in Oaxaca, MX
Sweet potatoes in Oaxaca, MX

Sweet potato soup with ginger, leeks and apple

Serves 6 as a first course

  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 leeks, white and palest green parts only, halved lengthwise, cleaned and sliced thinly
  • 2 1/2 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and diced
  • 1 pound (about 3) Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and cut into small cubes
  • 3 teaspoons peeled and grated fresh ginger
  • 5 cups of water
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • Salt to taste
  • Garnishes: Fresh lime juice, finely chopped fresh cilantro, slivered toasted almonds and a sprinkling of fruity chili powder, such as ancho

Heat the butter in a Dutch oven or soup pot over medium heat. Add the leeks and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the ginger and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add the ground cinnamon and cumin, and stir to combine. Add the sweet potatoes, apples and water, and bring the mixture to a simmer. Add salt to taste, reduce heat, cover the pot, and cook at a low simmer for about 45 minutes, until the vegetables are soft.

Puree the soup in batches in a blender, being careful not to blend too much at a time. Alternatively, you can use a handheld immersion blender. The soup should be very smooth.

Return the soup to the pot and heat gently.

Ladle the soup into individual soup bowls. Squeeze a little fresh lime juice into each bowl, garnish with cilantro and/or slivered toasted almonds, and sprinkle with a bit of ancho chili powder. Serve.

sweet potato soup


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