Welcome Winter!

Today is the Winter Solstice. Yesterday, we had a minute more sun than today's allotment, which is 10 hours, the least of any day of the year. Tomorrow, we get a minute more. It is no wonder the ancients celebrated this "return" of the sun, because it meant for them the promise of a new growing season ahead, which in turn translated into food on the table. It is also no accident that the most important Christian holiday falls close to the solstice each year.

Gardening at this time of year is largely confined to locations where the temperature can be kept a little higher than outside, such as a coldframe. Only the hardiest vegetables can withstand long periods of cold and short, gloomy days. Kale, green onions and spinach are still harvestable in our garden, but not much else is. Even the cold-tolerant greens in the coldframe look a bit bedraggled, probably owing to lack of sun.

Now is a great time to start planning next year's garden. I have already received by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange catlaog. You can browse it or request a paper copy at www.southernexposure.com .

Next season, we plan to focus more on warm weather crops, as part of the ongoing research for my upcoming book about Southern food and food gardening. While we won't ignore spring greens and such, we will be devoting more space to corn, okra, black-eyed peas, sweet potatoes and other veggies traditionally associated with Southern cooking. And tomatoes, of course.

My research on Southern food has turned up some fabulous traditional recipes that I plan to include in the book. Here's an example of a classic with my personal touches:

Hoppin’ John
2 cups cooked black-eyed peas (from 1 cup dried)1 tablespoon lard2 tablespoons country ham, chopped¼ medium onion, chopped¼ teaspoon dried oregano¼ teaspoon garlic powder1 cup water, or more if needed2 cups cooked rice

Wash, sort and soak 1 cup black-eyed peas overnight in water to cover. This should yield 2 cups of peas. In a large, heavy pot over medium heat, cook the ham in the lard until most of the fat is rendered, then add the onion and cook until it is transparent. Add seasonings, water and soaked black-eyed peas. The water should barely cover the peas. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a bare simmer. Cover and cook about 30 minutes, or until peas are tender. Add a little hot water if the mixture begins to get too dry. Stir the hot cooked rice into the peas gently and serve steaming in bowls.
Leftovers keep well, or try this take on cabbage rolls. Stuff blanched collard leaves (stems removed) with hoppin' John. Roll up into packets and place in a greased baking dish. Cover with Creole sauce or Italian tomato sauce and bake until the sauce bubbles. You can substitute cabbage, if you prefer. Savoy cabbage is in season in winter, and makes excellent rolls.