Letter from the North: cold snaps and unsnappy lettuce

Seattle is experiencing a cold spell that started with the change from daylight savings, a combination of darkness and cold that marks the early onset of winter. Yesterday's low was 18 F, or -7 C, well below the average. As I walked in the cold air, I hoped that Helsing Junction had finished harvesting crops for local food shelters, and that all of the region's vineyards had brought in their grapes. A few adventurous winemakers may have the chance to make ice wine from any grapes that were left on the vine - frozen grapes have a higher sugar concentration that lends itself to dessert wines. A few of the nearby houses have pumpkins set out front, carved and uncarved.

The practice of carving pumpkins and lighting the shells with candles came to the Americas with the Irish, Scots, and Welsh, who had carved squash in the old country and adapted the practice to the New World squash known as pumpkins. Halloween comes from the old Celtic celebration of Samhain ("End of Summer"), which marks the end of harvests and of the season. We've turned our sugar pumpkins into pie and soup, including a mushroom-pumpkin soup that was very good.

Although we lived in California for several years and enjoyed the year-round abundance of produce, when we returned to the Pacific Northwest we quickly adapted to new seasons. Autumn means that darkness falls early, especially now that daylight savings has ended, and meals become heavier and richer. We will make good use of our storage share of potatoes, onions, and winter squash, and the meat and soup bones from Crown S Ranch will warm us through the winter.

Apples and other autumn fruit will take a place in our diet, replacing some of the green vegetables, but inevitably we will buy greens during the winter to supplement our meals. The kale, chard, and other greens that I chopped and froze at the end of summer will come out of the freezer and be used in stir fries, frittatas, and other dishes. We have enough frozen pesto - four pints - to provide variety.

It seems like just a few days ago that I picked up our first CSA veggie box and piled the greens on a counter and pondered what to do with the bounty, and not so long since I complained about all that salad.

The last CSA veggie box was delivered a few weeks ago. It was strange to pick up the autumn vegetables and place them into bags, so I wouldn't have to worry about returning the cardboard box the following week. I'd made my last trip for the season.

We have bought one or two heads of lettuce and some bok choy since our CSA supply ended, and we have faced an unpleasant reality. CSA greens will last at least a week in the crisper, sometimes more, but store-bought vegetables have a shorter life. I had forgotten that fact, but was reminded when I pulled out a head of lettuce to make salad, only to discover that the leaves were wilted, brown, and unpleasant. I salvaged what I could, and threw the rest away.

The lettuce was only a few days old.

The store-bought bok choy suffered a similar fate, yellowing quickly, unlike the bok choy from the farm, which lasted 10 days until I used it.

At the store, we browse the fruit and vegetable section for local produce. Washington apples are plentiful and will remain in abundance through the winter, coming from cold storage to stores and farmers markets. A few other items are produced in local greenhouses, but most of the produce comes from California. I found a sad-looking row of romaine lettuce, already browning, from nearby Oregon and bought a head, promising myself to use the lettuce quickly before decomposition sets in.

To everything, there is a season, and with the end of summer, we will take what has been plucked up and set our purpose to cooking rich, warm foods until the sun returns in spring.

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