Walk In The Light
The temperature is dropping, or is it just my mood? If you’re finding it difficult to get ready for winter, let alone winter holidays, you’re not alone. This morning, a study reported that two-thirds of Americans are feeling heightened anxiety and depression over the newest covid19 variant, among a boatload of other things. For some of us, the brief, grey days of December kickstart Seasonal Affective Disorder, making us SAD indeed. My whole family is depressive and anxious already, our biochemistry permanently out of balance. SAD makes us sadder still, but fortunately there are some effective remedies for this gloomy condition. The most useful for me is light; a brisk walk in ordinary daylight, dim as it is at this time of year, can lift my spirits in minutes.
My favorite daily walk is to my nearby Pea Patch, a modest plot in a community garden. Most gardeners’ beds are tucked in for a winter nap by now, some layered with cardboard, others piled deep with leaves or a blanket of compost. Mine is also piled with leaves and compost, but it’s still productive, offering a mix of ever-blooming flowers (notably calendulas, feverfew, and bidens), five kinds of kale, and a dozen kinds of bitter greens, from arugula to radicchio. Winter-planted garlic is sprouting, sending up sturdy green shoots, and beautiful Italian dandelions are flourishing. These produce upright foliage, crisp and tasty, with a bit of a bite. I nibble them, raw and fresh, for a swift burst of bright flavor that helps me remember that I’m alive.
When my mom was failing, she would call me in the night. I was sleeping a few feet away in a little sunporch off the bedroom, and I’d stumble to her bedside to see what she needed. As she drew nearer to death, she would often ask me, “Am I dead?” I’d say, “No, Mom, you’re just practicing.” Then she’d say, “Well, then, can I have some coffee?” Sometimes she’d ask, “Are you dead?” I’d say no, but I’ve been thinking about that lately, when the deadening blanket of grief and sorrow lies heavy on my shoulders. It feels like in some deep way I’ve gradually allowed myself to be deadened, numbed out and unable to hold onto any fleeting happiness.
This morning I heard a scrap of that old BeeGees song and thought, YES! Stayin’ alive is an important life skill. Staying alive to life, to the whole catastrophe, to the mixed up mess that jumbles joy and sorrow, kindness and brutality, gratitude and selfishness, all together in our human soup. Acceptance of humanness is beyond my understanding but really, there’s no other choice. So, off for a walk in the chilly morning, damp with mist. The light is still grey, the clouds moving steadily along in a sky like a heap of old rags, but it’s LIGHT. After a few minutes, it starts to work its magic. At the Pea Patch, I add a few more wet leaves to the bed’s blanket, then forage happily for those beautiful bitter greens. I eat a few leaves of winter lettuce, some crunchy kale, crisp dandelion leaves, feathery wisps of wild arugula, making a living salad that wakes up my mouth. Staying alive. Staying alive.
Braised or stir fried or shredded into soups, bitter winter greens balance the heaviness of winter comfort food. Our family favorite mac & cheese involves as many vegetables as possible, including generous handfuls of shredded bitter greens to counter the rich smoothness of cheese sauce. Mix raw shredded greens into a salad for a bit of pop. Add some to pita or sandwich filling for a touch of piquant potency that lifts tuna or egg salad out of the doldrums.
About That Mac & Cheese
When I lived in Italy, I loved the baked pasta dishes that appeared on the table only in wintertime. Over the years, my once-traditional recipe morphed many times, from the punitive 80s years of weird substitutions to the luxe 2000s. This version relies as much on the vegetables as the variety of cheeses, both of which can be varied as much as you please. Sometimes I make this with pungent feta and spinach, or fontina, sweet corn and caramelized onions, or Havarti with dill and smoked salmon. My own preference is for extra sharp cheddar, but my grandkids love that yellow medium cheddar that turns everything pale orange. Whatever makes you happy is what you “should” use (though I doubt that a successful dairy-free version can be made).
Winter Mac & Cheese
1 pound penne rigati (dry)
1/4 cup avocado oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
4 stalks celery, chopped
2 cups chopped peppers
4 cups shredded greens (kale, arugula, etc.)
1/2 cup flour
4-6 cups milk
4 ounces cubed cheddar cheese
4 ounces grated mozzarella
4 ounces grated Parmesan 1 cup ricotta
1 cup seasoned bread crumbs
Cook penne per package directions to just al dente, drain and pour into a 13 x 9 inch baking pan, adding a little oil and stirring to coat, set aside. In a large saucepan, combine remaining oil, onion, and garlic with salt and cook over medium heat until barely soft. Add celery and peppers and cook until barely soft. Add greens, cover pan and sweat vegetables until greens soften (2-3 minutes). Stir in flour, coating all the vegetables, cover pan and cook for 1-2 minutes. Stir in 1 cup milk, mashing out lumps, then adding more milk to make the amount of sauce you prefer (4 cups makes a denser sauce, 6 cups a lighter one). Reduce heat to medium low and stir occasionally until sauce starts to thicken. Add cheese and cover pan, stirring occasionally. When cheese is almost melted, pour sauce over penne and stir to get it evenly distributed. Sprinkle crumbs over the top and bake at 350 F until bubbly (about 30 minutes). Makes about 6-8 servings, reheats well.