As February marked the last month in the ancient Roman calendar, the Romans spent this time of year setting themselves in accord with the world. The 9-day festival of Parentalia began on 13 February and culminated with the day of Feralia, which began at sundown on the 21st. Parentalia was a sacred time to commune with the ancestors, specifically the private family ancestors, as the name indicates.
The Vestal Virgins opened the holidays with a public ritual, but after that Rome retreated behind closed doors to honor their dead family members. Government shut down. Commerce was much reduced. You could not get married or bring petition to the courts. It was a time out of time.
Much like all festivals of the dead, the Romans believed that in this time their deceased were physically present with them and needed sustenance for their 9-day sojourn in the mortal world. A great deal of energy was spent preparing food for the dead and lavishing beautiful decorations on the family sarcophagus. It was a time of solemn feasting.
And yet in the middle of all this, there came the riotous fertility festival of Lupercalia. Ostensibly honoring the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, the ritual activity of Lupercalia had little to do with any aspect of Roman history and a great deal to do with the goat gods.
And as such it was a time of chaos…
come to me out of expansive time smooth this troubled brow with ethereal fingers drape your spectral shadow over these fear-hunched shoulders come to me out of worlds beyond world let me taste liminal remembrance sounding ghostly echoes by hearth-light come to me out of winter darkness for i shall be your lighthouse with candles in western windows and cats to chase away the gnawing hunger come to me my own blood and bones be again in this seemingly solid world blaze these broken paths so that i might follow come to me my own soul shepherd with coin to pay the ferryman and boots to bear me over clouds come to me my own dear memory for i am so cold in this world without you
The Wolf Moon moves into its final week today. The Snow Moon follows. Also called the Hunger Moon, this moon cycle is always about the stasis that precedes eruptive spring. But in this late-shifted lunar year, the Snow Moon is less snowy than hungry, hungering for the approaching spring, hungering for full bellies and satiated desires. This time of the solar seasonal year is just on the edge of awakened green life. Spring is tantalizing in its proximity, but still out of reach for a while… a moon… And our feet impatiently tap out our frustrations.
I find being in the kitchen helps. If there is harvest produce left — and there should be… it’s a while before there will be fresh — use it to make filling root vegetable stews to warm the belly and calm the nerves. You’ll also be warming the house, no small joy in February. And if you’re of a Roman bent, you can leave small portions for the ancestors out in your garden — where the ancestors will be pleased to share with the hungry critters who might otherwise be girdling the fruit trees in these barren weeks. I also sprinkle the snow with sunflower seeds… seems symbolically appropriate… and the finches who come to snap up the seeds are delightful.
Here is one of my most favorite recipes: Green Chile Vichyssoise!
I can’t imagine why I haven’t shared this before. Only that maybe I thought I had… Old lady brain…
Green Chile Vichyssoise
potatoes, any variety, 8 pounds or so, peeled and cubed roasted Big Jim (or similar) chile pods, 8-12, peeled and chopped leeks, 3-4 fat ones, green tops and roots removed, coarsely chopped 1 large yellow onion, peeled and chopped 1 bulb of garlic, (yes, bulb), peeled and minced, slightly squished to release juice 2 cups plain yogurt (though lemon yogurt works well also) 1-2 quarts of liquid (some combination of water, sherry or white wine, whey, veg stock, chicken or turkey stock, or whatever you use as soup base) few Tbs butter or oil for sautéing the alliums herb & spice mix: dried thyme, 2 Tbs rubbed sage, 2 Tbs dried savory, 1 Tbs dried marjoram, 1 Tbs powdered fenugreek, 2 tsp nutmeg, 2 tsp good salt, fleur de sel if you have it, 1 tsp white pepper, 1/2 tsp
Preheat the oven to 325°F. Grease/oil/otherwise lubricate a glazed baking dish.
In a small bowl, combine all the herbs and spices, stirring well.
Wash, peel and chop the potatoes into bite-sized cubes. (If you have fresh potatoes, ones that haven’t been hanging out in a bin for several months, you can leave the skins on for extra flavor and nutrition.)
Put the cubes in the baking dish, tumbling them around to lightly coat in the fats. Sprinkle with a bit of the spice mix.
Roast the potatoes until golden on the outside and soft on the inside, about an hour.
When the potatoes are almost done, begin peeling and chopping 8-12 large roasted chiles. I like much chile. A less New Mexican palate might get by with 4-6 pods. Peeling roasted chiles is less taking the peel off the flesh than peeling the flesh off of the peel. Cut the stem end off, removing most of the seed core. It helps to cut off a tiny bit of the blossom end also. Slice the pod in half. Working with one half at a time, remove the seeds and most of the stringy white stuff. (Or, if you want real fire, this stuff that holds the seeds is where most of the capsaicin is concentrated. But it’s also stringy. And bitter. So…) Using your thumbnails, rake the flesh off of the peel. A well-roasted chile will peel easily, but burnt or raw spots will be difficult. Doing all this under cool, gently running water helps to separate peel and flesh and mostly saves your own flesh from chile burn. When all are peeled, pile up the flesh and chop it all into 1/2″-ish squares and set aside.
Peel and chop the yellow onion and the garlic. Again, I like a lot of garlic. Also, I eat out of the pot for a week, and garlic loses its punch in the fridge. (And it really diminishes if you reheat the whole pot each night, another very good reason to only heat up what you will eat.) So a bulb is good for me. You might do fine with 2-4 cloves.
Heat the sautéing oil or butter over high heat in a large heavy-bottomed stew pot. I use a Dutch oven.
Sauté the onions until soft and translucent, then add the garlic and turn down the heat to about medium.
While the garlic softens, prep the leeks. Cut off the green tops and the root base. Slice the leeks length-wise and wash thoroughly. Leeks are blanched to make that large white end, meaning dirt has been piled on top of the growing plant. So there will be dirt trapped within the interior layers. Chop into 1″ pieces then add to the onion and garlic, stirring the whole pot to combine all the alliums well.
Add the chopped chile.
Take the potatoes out of the oven when done and let cool in the baking pan a bit. This will firm up the crusty, roasted edges a bit so that it doesn’t turn to mush when you pour it all in the pot. (Though there’s nothing wrong with mush… as you’ll see below…) Then add the potatoes to the stew.
Add the yogurt to the stew pot, stirring well.
Add whatever liquid you normally use in soups until the pot is full and all the veg is submerged. I usually like a combination of flavored liquids, though water is just fine when the pantry is less than well-stocked. But this is how I use nearly all the whey that comes from my cheese-making. I also put in a bit of broth or stock. And for this soup, I really like a half cup or so of cooking sherry. (Don’t worry about the alcohol… this recipe cooks it all off.)
Stir all and bring to a boil.
Let it boil for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Don’t let the potatoes stick.
You may want to add water to replace what has boiled off. If you do, bring the stew up to a low boil after the addition.
Take off the heat (or if you have an induction cook-top, just turn it down). Put the pot on low heat.
Add the spice mix and stir in well.
Cover the pot and simmer over low heat until the leeks are well softened and somewhat darker in color, about an hour.
This is when you wash up all the dishes, so the kitchen is clean when you sit down to eat.
Serve this stew very warm, with a nutty, whole-grain bread. If you do dairy, a lump of cream cheese — or that ricotta — makes a nice garnish on each serving. When the herb garden is green, I sprinkle the top with minced fresh herbs like parsley, chive and basil. Fennel and mustard greens work nicely too, though omit the nutmeg and fenugreek if you are using these strong-tasting bitter herbs. (Maybe use 1-2 tsp ground coriander or mustard seed instead?)
For an elegant variation, use an immersion blender to purée the whole stew into a creamy soup. Croutons coated in some variety of herb and spice are wonderful floated in bowls of this soup. This is what is properly meant by “vichyssoise”, the soup popularized (and probably reinvented) by Julia Child. Though she never added green chile… and her use of herbs and spices is rather less than I like.
Goes without saying that as a soup so deeply associated with Julia, you should toast it with at least one glass of good white wine. And of course, this is entirely appropriate for your Parentalia feast!
A Cold Composting Trick
I figure this is a good place to tell you about a neat trick I discovered, partly as a result of making true vichyssoise. When you get to the end of your tolerance for leftover stew while there still is stew in the bottom of the pot (it happens…), this is how you keep the nutrients from that mushy mess for your garden even in the depths of winter.
First, don’t just dump it in the sink, no matter if you have a disposal or not. That’s just more work for the water treatment plant, along with the waste in nutrients. But you also probably don’t want to dump the stew in your likely overflowing composter this time of year either, what with cold temperatures slowing the rot to almost nil.
Use that immersion blender — or a regular counter-top blender if you don’t have the hand-held variety — to turn it all into a slurry. Add a bit of warm water. Then dump this onto the compost pile. The puréeing takes care of step one in composting, reducing particulate volume and increasing surface area by physically breaking down the chunks. This enables what critters are active in the cold to better colonize those surfaces and continue breaking it all down biochemically. Plus the warm water distributes the nutritious slurry through the frozen pile, warming the pile in the process.
If you can stomach it and you have an immersion blender that you don’t use for food (I have one I use for soap-making), you could try this in the kitchen scraps pail as well. I have not. I probably will not. I do not want to… But it’s not implausible that I might get so desperate for composter space that I’ll be forced to liquify the rinds, peels and tea leaves… There will be masking for that project!
©Elizabeth Anker 2023