In Defense of November, and Sweet Potato Soup

November, the month so many people love to hate (here in the North), stayed true to form and began with a cold rain. The romance of autumn wears off as bright colored leaves, stripped from trees by November winds, turn brown underfoot, and begin the process of decay.  What remains in gardens looks sad…squash and beans that didn’t quite mature while the weather was more favorable, begin to rot on their vines in the cold and wetness.

In the Northwest November is traditionally one of the rainiest months. In the 70s, while living in Oregon, I remember a November when all 30 days had significant, measurable rainfall.  It was a dark month!  There have been equally wet Novembers since, the last record breaker was 2006 with 11.6 inches of rain by November 15th.

Quotes from poets and writers about November seem mostly to be about darkness, death, cold, rain and snow. December, though days are shorter, is welcomed because there are reasons to celebrate and eat rich foods! A month filled with holidays of light, December brings the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, after which it’s all up hill to the light of spring – sort of.  Personally, I find January the dreariest of months.

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I feel it is time to defend November.  After all it’s ‘my’ month. Female readers of the baby boom generation may remember little china angels one would get for their birth month. My ‘November angel’, found tucked in a box in the attic, has symbols of abundance and a very sweet face. Not an angel of darkness at all!

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Orcas Island, November 2010.

Perusing my photo library, I find stunning photos over the years of November days, low winter sun providing dramatic lighting for beautiful sky shots.  Definitely a month of transition. Many photos show trees still in vivid color, taking their time to let go of leaves, yet there are also many late November snow scenes. We have a peach tree that stays green until November, then turns gold. High bush cranberry bushes are in their peak of  pale yellow and red coloration. And Osier Dogwoods, though windblown, are festive with leaves of red, maroon, and shades of green.

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sweet potato, leek and apple soup with goat cheese

And did you know November is Sweet Potatoes Awareness Month? (Not to be confused with Sweet Potato Month in February, I could find no explanation for why sweet potatoes have two months).  If there is a vegetable that needs an awareness month it is the sweet potato.  Most stores, and many people, call orange sweet potatoes yams and lots of folks think they are a potato, which they aren’t.  (Here’s some info to clear up any confusion)

IMG_5068My latest quickie soup is Sweet Potato, leek & apple soup. My first batch had 2 or 3 medium orange sweet potatoes, a parsnip, the upper green part of a leek and a chopped apple. After everything is cooked soft (add the apple half way through) blend the whole batch into a thick creamy soup.  Variations included a yellow sweet potato in place of the parsnip; or add cashews for richness and additional thickness. In today’s batch, half of a chopped onion and pre-cooked brown rice gave it a little more zing and substance. I season it primarily with my homemade curry powder and/or churna mix, any cumin rich blend seems compatible with sweet potatoes and helps the tummy to digest this ‘heavy’ food.

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…in November…the season that follows the hour of the dead, the crowning and majestic hours of autumn, I go to visit the chrysanthemums …They are indeed, the most universal, the most diverse of flowers.

I love reading the above quote from Belgium poet Maurice Maeterlinck, an ode to November’s flower, which fills florist shops and grocery stores and survive in early winter gardens.  As a young person I felt a little cheated having ‘my’ birth month flower be something I didn’t then consider beautiful, (I did love the giant, yellow, pompom mums I wore to homecoming games.)  My favorites were among the flowers of spring and summer.  But I grew to love chrysanthemums and look forward to seeing the variety of colors and shapes available this time of year. The rest of the year there are the ubiquitous daisy-like chrysanthemums, but the rainbow of golds, shades of purples, and light and dark bronzes, makes one appreciate why the chrysanthemum is Japan’s national flower, which they celebrate with a Festival of Happiness!

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High Bush Cranberry peak in their rich red coloration in November.

What isn’t there to love about a month that gives you a great excuse to make a pot of soup, buy some flowers, and curl up with a good book while the wind blows and the rain falls. But be ready to venture out when the skies clear. November is a month where things are swept clean, and you really can see the forest through the trees. It’s big holiday lasts only one day, and it’s purpose is to celebrate gratitude!

Happy November!

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Recipe For Winter

For readers who may not live in the coastal Pacific Northwest…it’s raining out. Not just raining, November raining. The rain that spawns temperate rainforests of water-loving Sitka spruce, Western hemlock, Western red cedar, and Bigleaf maples, whose branches are covered with thick moss, holding the rain like sponges. It’s the type of rain that brings those gentle giants down by saturating the soil where their roots try to hold on while water pours into the earth, loosening even the hardest of clay soils, and moving in rivulets the rich peaty soils of the forest floor.

In our small, old, house with 2×4 framing, thin-glassed old windows, and low ceilings, November rain is a pounding force to be reckoned with, an omnipresent noise, day and night. The barrier between the sheets of falling water and us seems a bit weak-willed. I review in my mind…how old is our roof? Did we leave any unfinished projects at any buildings that might have left even a crack where water could get in? How will the old chicken coop hold up?

Everyone – us, chickens, ducks, are warm and dry…and for the most part staying indoors.

And then it stops. Just when you think it will never stop, when it has rained for at least 48-72 hours, when the weather forecast says 90-100% rain every day in the foreseeable future, the faucet suddenly turns off, the darken sky lightens, and the world opens up.

Going outside after the first good multiple-day November storm is always an awe-inspiring experience. Deciduous trees have lost nearly every last leaf (except our strange peach tree, which has never produced more than a few peaches, yet holds on to bright green leaves until Christmas). There is sky where there has not been sky since early the previous spring. The road noise, drowned out by the rain, is audible again, yet there is a silence when compared to the deafening water that has pounded, like the surf on a beach, and poured for hours. The rainstorm, washing away autumn,  has given birth to winter.  It is not the same stillness of the first snowfall, yet there is a tangible winter calm to the quiet that follows a robust rainstorm.

Remarkably, with the winter solstice still a month away, darkness increasing daily, and the days continuing to get shorter, there are signs of spring. New buds have formed on the Indian Plum, and on the Flowering Current, which I guiltily pruned today, cutting off many tender buds. It is difficult in the northwest to find a ‘dormant’ time to hack away at plants. With the wet weather and mild winters, the dying back and the budding forth appear seamless in many perennial bushes and trees.  Even some early perennial flowers have put forth new leaves, but it is a premature effort, for the first snow or a prolonged freeze will cause them to die back.

It is the lull before the next storm, according to the weather pundits, a much-appreciated lull before feeling buffeted around again by stormy weather. As this week of Thanksgiving, infamous for challenging weather patterns, begins, I am grateful to go out and work in the wet garden, breathing in the clean air as I prune back dead flowers, pull down soggy bean plants, cover the whitened, decaying squash plants with fallen Maple leaves, preparing the hills for next summer’s planting. An appreciated lull to put the garden to bed for the winter.

Northwest weather is made for soup.  I make a lot of soups.  Here is one of my latest. Warming food for stormy weather! A nice pre or post-Thanksgiving meal, easy, not too heavy, but filling.

Acorn Squash Soup

Quarter and bake in a 350 degree oven one acorn squash (any winter squash will do just fine) until a knife goes in easy and there is a little browning on top. After it has cooled, scrap out the meat, cut into chunks, and put in a soup pan. (You can also quarter and steam in a pan on the stove top, this saves time, but if you have the time, baking/roasting the squash in the oven brings out the flavor and sweetness more.)

Add a quart of water (actually I never measure so I’m just guessing on this, might need a little more)

Chop and add:

1/3 cup onion

2 medium to large carrots – not the bitter supermarket kind, but local, farmers market ones, this adds flavor and sweetness. (Nash’s Organic Produce or Dharma Ridge Farm are favorites of ours.)

Dharma Ridge Carrots at the Chimacum Market. The Port Townsend Market is still open on Saturdays with lots of winter veggies from local farmers.

1 small apple, a tart one is good

Also add:

¼ cup basmati rice

1 bay leaf

1 t. grated fresh ginger

1 to 1 ½ t. homemade curry powder

Cook until rice is done.  Put into a blender in batches to blend smooth.  It will have little pieces of apple skin, for a smoother soup peel apple first.

Options: I added homemade almond milk I had on hand, coconut milk is also nice, about 1/3 cup.

Garnish with a dollop of tahini and fresh grated ginger, the tahini adds protein, and a distinctive, richer flavor, but the soup is delicious, and a little lighter, without it.

Ah, it is raining again.  Think I’ll go make some soup! 

Happy Thanksgiving all! 

I am grateful you do me the honor of reading my musings!  It helps keep my creativity alive!