Chickadees flit from perch to perch. They are a cheerful bunch, gray-winged little birds of winter with black caps and beards. I remember them fondly, their whistling chatter constant and merry throughout the long snowy months of my childhood in Vermont. It’s comforting to see them outside my window here too. The days have grown shorter, the sunlight weaker, and from time to time a north wind blows. A familiar chill reaches in towards bone. It settles under the skin in late November where it will reside until we arch back towards the sun.
The days oscillate warm and cold. It’s a time of transition, moving away form the nostalgia of autumn into the hibernation of winter. We bring thick knits and warm woolen wear down from the attic to layer on for winter and store away the lighter clothes now unused. Meals too take on a specific tone. We reach for full heads of spinach, fresh kikurage wood’s ear mushrooms, thick trunks of gobo, great big heavy heads of Chinese cabbage, and soft white rounds of sweet turnips. I never really knew a turnip before moving to Japan. But here they are a staple, hearty but not heavy, starchy and sweet, the exact thing for crossing the bridge into winter. And they’re versatile too, a prized quality in a season when the variety of fresh produce at the market slowly diminishes.
The flesh of a turnip is white as winter but the skins, matte and silken, have a warmth to their character. Both bulbs and greens feature predominantly in Kuniko’s daily tsukemono rotation alongside carrots, radishes, and daikon. Hanako makes a puree of them topped with a drizzle of olive oil, flakes of sea salt, and shaved yuzu rind that we sip as a soup. When I crave a bit of elegance, I’ll carve away the outer rinds to reveal a six sided orb and simmer the peels with a bit of salt until all of the flavor is extracted. Then I’ll remove the peels and simmer the turnips in the broth until they are just soft enough to pierce with a toothpick. I set each in a bowl and top them with a small green blanched turnip leaf, a sliver of yuzu rind, and spoon a ladle full of broth over it. The broth is hot and soothing, the flesh of the turnip light and sweet, filling without sitting heavy in the stomach. It’s a delicate dish, perfect for this season of easing into winter. Warming to the core it chases away the evening’s chill, leaving you flushed but not so very full.
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