A Witch’s Pantry: Foods to Warm Your Samhain and Winter
by Catherine Harper
The year has turned towards dark, and the last of the autumn harvest is in. Every year, I grieve a little more for summer — this year all the more as the squash and beets come in, the farmer’s markets roll up for the year and I contemplate the long winter without the abundance of produce that has made the bulk of my diet. The more time I spend outside, the more I regret the fading of the light. Every year, the seasons penetrate a little deeper.
But it is also a good time. The winds come back, making the cedars dance, and I hardly had realized I’d missed them. On the best days, they carry the orange leaves of big leaf maples and just a few drops of rain swirling around. The grass turns green again, and then grows, until the light becomes too scant even for that. The rooms of our house grow, at least in import, and the kitchen is cheery and warm from the oven despite the dark and rain outside.
I wonder, sometimes, if there is an inherited factor in my relationship to my pantry. (I can certainly imagine that it might carry survival advantage.) There is something very satisfying for me about deep shelves full of canisters and gallon jars of rye, split peas, rice and lentils. Some of it makes a kind of sense, even in this world: Most years, for instance, I dry several gallons’ worth of boletes for use during the rest of the year. Home-dried tomatoes from our garden or wild ginger from the woods also has an obvious place, things that cannot simply be purchased as needed. And my (in part environmentally motivated) hatred of excessive packaging, love of durable storage and a bad experience with grain moths in my last apartment has combined to make me prefer jars and canisters to cardboard boxes and plastic bags for those things I can buy in bulk.
But there is also an almost atavistic sense wherein I know that my dry goods and what I could glean from the woods even in this dark time of year could keep a family fed and healthy for many months. (When I was first on my own, I lived this way quite often, though not really by choice. And indeed, in many ways it was healthier than the richer and more varied diet I am blessed with today.) And there is something very honest in the piles of squash, onions and garlic in the downstairs pantry, and the kales and chard that hold so well in the garden.
Much of this borders on ritual use. I may grow most of our green onions and kale and stock up on local squash near the end of the season, but almost all of the storage squash from our own garden is eaten either at Samhain (pumpkin soup with chili anchos, a touch of bitter chocolate, and a dollop of cream, some years) or Thanksgiving (traditions are easily established, and I will make stuffed squash each year until my dying day, I fear). In many things, our garden doesn’t meet our needs, but the things we’ve grown and saved ourselves are special and usually hold places of significance in the meal.
Tomato vines that still bear unripe tomatoes when the cold comes can be cut and hung upside down in the garage or basement. Squash, kept somewhere cool, dry and well-ventilated, can last through the next spring (some varieties better than others, of course). It will sweeten in storage, and the flesh will become drier. The first new squash of the year is always a shock to me because in comparison to the older squash it has so little sugar. Potatoes (which I don’t grow, though I know people who do in strange wire mesh and straw contraptions that keep the tubers out of our heavy clay soil) keep well if they are dry, well-ventilated and out of the light. Onions, too, prefer the dry and dark, but one must check them frequently for rot, or a single rotted onion will taint its neighbors.
And of course the dried grains and legumes will keep almost indefinitely. Whole-grain flour will often go rancid, but the whole grain will not if you have a hand mill to grind it at need. (It is my understanding that fresh ground flour, wherein the nutrients have not had a chance to oxidize, is also more nutritious. But mostly, I like the taste and texture.) Dried beans, which must be soaked in water at least overnight and then simmered for a good portion of the day, have fallen a bit in popular favor, but the slow-cooked soups that simmer and warm your kitchen are worth remembering. Oats, whole, rolled or steel cut, can be mixed with liquid, nuts and dried fruit and left to sit in a still-warm brick oven overnight. And many whole grains can be cooked with meat, broth and sturdy vegetables rather in the manner of a risotto. There is much good food in winter that relies neither on refrigeration or transport from sunnier climes.
Barley is a grain too seldom used. Mild and creamy in texture, it is a good foil for many hearty winter foods. The pumpkins described here are small pie pumpkins, measuring about four inches across — pumpkins are not the best storage squash, but these little pumpkins are available each year from our local organic farmer’s stand, and make for particularly attractive presentation. If they are not available near you, halved and seeded delicata or acorn squash also works well. These should be baked at 350 degrees, cut side down, for at least half an hour or until just tender before being stuffed, for their thicker walls will not quickly bake through after stuffing.
1 onion, chopped
1 tablespoon oil
2-4 cloves garlic
4-6 dried shiitake mushrooms
1&fraq12; cup hulled barley
2 cups water
A note on the mushrooms: Fresh shiitake or other strongly flavored fresh or dried mushroom can be substituted. If anything, increase the amount. Or add grocery-store button mushrooms to the shiitake.
Soak the shiitake mushrooms in a couple of cups of warm water for 20 minutes. In a medium-sized (and thick-bottomed) sauce pan, caramelize the onion in a little oil over medium heat. As the onion begins to turn a nice brown, slice the shiitake mushrooms and add them to the pot, continuing to stir gently. Add next the garlic, crushed or pressed. Let everything get a chance to brown — better browning will improve the flavor, but if you’re in a rush you can cut this down to a token browning. Then add the dry-hulled barley, stirring it to absorb the oil and letting it, too, brown lightly.
Add to this the two cups of water, and salt to taste. (The water you soaked the mushrooms in is particularly good for this, if you are careful not to pour in any sediment.) Bring to a simmer, reduce to low heat, and cover. The barley will need to simmer for at least 40 minutes. Check every 10 minutes or so, and add more water if needed. Simmer until the barley is tender.
Stuffing Your Pumpkins
To stuff the pumpkins, use a small knife or pumpkin saw to cut a large circle out around the stem of the pumpkin, as you would to make a jack-o-lantern. Remove seeds, and fill with the hot barley mixture (the heat will speed the cooking time). A little grated cheese can be added if desired. Replace the lids, and cook at 350 degrees for 20-30 minutes, or until the pumpkins are tender.