Photo by norwichnuts/FlickrCC
Confession: I let my CSA down last week.
I am not at my best in January. Once the New Year's bloom has worn off, I fall prey to the lack of light and the cold. Gloomy lines from Shakespeare run through my head—"now is the winter of our discontent" and "that time of year thou mayest in me behold/ When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang/ Upon the boughs that shake against the cold"—their rhythm matching perfectly to the tramp, tramp, tramp of my snow boots as I negotiate the ice-slicked streets of Cambridge. I force serious talks on my boyfriend about Where Our Relationship Is Going; to my friends, I make the kind of jokes (mordant and self-deprecating) that I'm sure have them worried about me.
There's something about eating a colorful dinner that can't help but dispel at least some gloom.
I'd like to say that I rise up out of all this seasonal affective disorder detritus at the stove, that I cook up rich stews and braises and invite friends over for red wine and hearty meals. And I should probably try that. But in the meantime, last week, I let a whole bag of perfectly nice arugula wilt and brown in the refrigerator.
It was a wake-up call. Wasting food bothers me even more than January, and part of the reason I committed to this winter CSA was that I wanted to find new ways to cook and eat vegetables and to remember that choice is a luxury I take for granted. I had wanted to commit to being thoughtful and thankful; with regard to the arugula, I had been neither.
Perhaps this is all overly melodramatic and high-minded; the point is, I felt bad about the arugula, and it shook me out of my January gloom. Planning a solitary supper, I evaluated my options: some string beans that would last another day or two, a pile of potatoes, and a bag of bouncy spinach, so fresh that the leaves squeaked against each other. Since I was still haunted by the arugula, it seemed best to cook the spinach first, to supplicate the gods of winter greens.
My brain started moving in more productive tracks than it has been lately, remembering the sweet potatoes from a share I received a few weeks ago in a basket in the counter. They needed to be cooked, and their sweetness would pair perfectly with garlicky sautéed spinach. The combination is hearty, colorful, and virtuous, just what I needed at this particular moment: something flavorful but also workaday. It's certainly not dinner-party fare, but it is something to look forward to feeding yourself.
I always roast my sweet potatoes in the toaster oven; it seems wasteful to bring the full heat of the big oven to bear on one or two tubers. To roast them, turn the toaster oven up to 400 F, poke holes in them with a fork so they don't explode, and put them in the oven on a tray or sheet of aluminum foil. An average-sized sweet potato will take 40 minutes to an hour to cook this way.
While I waited for them to cook, I scrubbed arugula ooze out of the crisper drawer, chopped garlic, washed spinach, and opened a beer. These small, ritualistic actions got me back in the rhythm of cooking and feeding myself, and I thought about the rest of my share: the potatoes, fried and doused in yogurt sauce, would make another solitary dinner; I could slice the eggplants and bake them with a chunky sauce made from the tomatoes, to eat alongside a roasted chicken or on top of pasta. Bok choi and carrots, with some ginger and garlic and soy sauce, would make a stir fry to feed my housemate and me one weekday night.
As the sweet potatoes sputtered away, I warmed some olive oil in a saucepan and added a few minced cloves of garlic and a dash of red pepper flakes. When the garlic began to brown, I added the still-wet spinach and stirred until it wilted. I cut open the sweet potato and added a few generous pats of butter, then piled the spinach alongside.
There's something about eating a colorful dinner that can't help but dispel at least some gloom. I can't decide whether to put it down to science—more color, as I recall from elementary school, means more vitamins, and a vitamin-packed meal must give you a lift—or to the pure sensual pleasure of deep orange and bright green on a plate together. This pleasure isn't too far removed from that of looking at a painting or listening to a musical phrase: it's a moment when food can be exciting, can make you smile, can nourish your senses. Either way, it cheered me up, and so if you are suffering from the Januarys, I recommend sweet potatoes and spinach.