ecember throws me. Not only am I asked to write about a time of holidays I once anticipated and prepared for with joy to the world and hope for peace on earth, I am to do it when the November afternoons turn suddenly blacker than my mood and the dinner hour that appears to be approaching is actually three hours away, when the Hesperian depression begins its insidious creep through the soul, not to be exorcised until around late March or so when the first hoarse birdies begin their heralding of better times.
These are the winter blues.
Adding to that, only gray, black and navy seem to dominate the winter fashion world just as seemingly dull root vegetables dominate the open markets. Whoever decided on a death knell for color around November 1st, only to come to life again on Easter eggs? You would think that at a time when everyone is either wheezing or sneezing, mucking through rain-soaked streets, and wishing that holidays, shopping and anxiety about who is getting what were over, you could at least brighten your day by finding a good tomato somewhere.
Alas, tomatoes in winter are just about as tasty as tomatoes in Siberia, even though there are some passable hothouse varieties that can be camouflaged with olive oil, garlic and nice toasty piece of, say, pane di Lariano.
But as for a true, sliceable, choppable, only-a-bit-of-salt-on-each-bite tomato, cross it off your winter grocery list. You can’t pretend what isn’t there.
Instead, take a second look at the often-ignored, not very eye-catching but especially-tasty-in-winter root vegetables: carrots, turnips, beetroots, parsnips, and of course, the lowly but multi-faceted potatoes and garlic.
Above-grounders such as cauliflower and cabbage may also be added to the pan, meaning a very large, non-stick roasting pan into which you layer quarter-inch slices of all the above (literally), douse copiously with extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper and roast for about 45 minutes in a hot oven (250C) until the smell drives you mad and all is browned and crispy.
Although the superstar tomato goes on winter sabbatical, its understudies can steal the show. Broccoli rabe, spinach, and cicoria sautéed until crisp in olive oil and spiked up with a little hot pepper and a few slices of garlic are contorni worth your attention, not only because of their piccante, vanilla-like flavors, but because they’re the real vaccines against winter bugs. Packed with vitamins, the wintergreens that proliferate in Rome’s open markets are now becoming year-round companions to meat, fish and fowl, not to mention their other role as quick and easy pasta sauces.
All it takes is a food processor or one of those little magic, hand-held rotor blades, and you can whiz up your sautéed greens with a little warm chicken broth, a squeeze of lemon and a spoon of Parmigiano Reggiano and feed the masses in minutes.
Another star, the artichoke, appears in autumn along with its sidekick, agretti (from the tumbleweed family), which grow in the nearby ditches (simply steam for a few minutes, add lemon and olive oil and eat).
Agretti are little known outside of Rome (even at Rome’s outskirts there are those who have no idea that this odd little vegetable exists), but artichokes are still my favorite: deep-fried, or sautéed, steamed with olive oil, garlic and mint, the baby ones sliced raw, thin and anointed with olive oil, lemon juice and salt as a salad, or simply peeled down to the yellow, tender hearts, cut into quarters, parboiled for a few minutes, cooled and packed away in freezer bags (to keep your blackberry stash company) for a little taste of luxury in the dead of winter.
And if all of the above can’t dissipate the December doldrums, I suggest you find your own little tomato and curl up by the fire with her or him until the birdies get their voices back. They always do.