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Winter is in the air...again


Winter has decided to come back to us after all. We awoke this morning to a light dusting and 20mph winds with temperatures in the low 20s. The kiddo, warm and snuggled in her blankets with Lazy Dog, demanded a snow day. But, alas, even with wind chills hovering in the single digits and snow flying past the windows school is still on.

Up on Mt. Doom as we call our hill, the wind is howling and rattling the windows and the front door. The massive pine tree next to our house is swaying like a drunken hula dancer, and the trees across the field are swaying perilously close to the power lines. The lights keep flickering, and I keep eyeing the generator nervously - the Boss is at work and I’ve never started the thing before. There is some crazy sequence you have to go through which involves sacrificing a chicken and standing on your head while you flip twenty knobs in an exact order.

Thankfully, the power stays on and I can get back to my latest project - surfing the seed catalogs for inspiration. I’m a sucker for shiny paper, witty copy and photos of luscious produce that would die in a hot minute in this weather. Thumbing through the pages, I dream of plump red and yellow tomatoes, their sharp acidity tempered by a hint of mid-summer sweetness. I can see them growing now, their vibrant green tendrils reaching up the tomato cages in the raised bed near the center of the garden. The next page yields herbs - sweet, pungent, peppery, acidic - every flavor you can imagine in every shade of green you have ever seen.

My eyes wander over the pages, making notes and plans in my gardening ‘notebook’ (a series of documents in a folder on my iPad). I make a few quick sketches as to how I might lay out my garden this year - I try to practice companion planting and crop rotation as much as possible. I love this time of year, when spring looms large on the horizon and everything is possible before the reality of hot, dry summers and hornworms begin to tamper the relentless optimism of a gardener in winter.

I spy potatoes - fingerlings, red, Yukon, Irish white - all of which will be planted this spring, along with my personal favorite sweet potatoes. This year I’m considering growing some of the unusual varieties of sweets, specifically the purple ones from Japan. There’s nothing better than a baking sheet full of tubers drizzled with olive oil, salt,, pepper and rosemary on a cold day. Toss in some nice Italian sausages and maybe some sun-dried tomatoes, and you have a comfort food bonanza.

I suddenly have a massive hankering for potatoes. But how should I prepare them? Baked, mashed, broiled…there are endless ways to prepare a potato. But one sticks out in my mind as the flakes continue to fly on this arctic grey day.

Potato soup.

If there is one meal that was universal throughout my childhood, it was potato soup. Given my family is about as Irish as they come (and not to play too much to stereotypes) but we ate an obscene amount of potatoes. My family would buy fifty pounds at a time from the local wholesale market. That bag would last around a month, sometimes less in winter. We had potatoes with just about every meal, and they were prepared in an endless array of styles and flavors. Potato bread, Dublin coddle, shepherd’s pie, Guinness stew, bangers and mashed, potato pancakes…I could go on for days, but the most common was potato soup.

The big soup pot (it needed two burners) would come out about once a week and we would peel potatoes for so long my hands would get pruned. Leeks, onion, garlic, bay leaves and paprika would perfume the air of the house as they slowly roasted in the bottom of the pot. Next we would add the potatoes, allowing them to get a slight golden crust before the water went in. Finally, salt and pepper would be added before the giant lid was placed on top and the soup would simmer for hours.

The soup would be tasted for seasoning with a massive wooden spoon before being mashed a bit with the potato masher to give it a little thickness. Finally, the velvety soup would be ladled into bowls and an array of garnishes would be placed on the table, along with some crusty bread, butter and some aged cheddar.

My mouth is now watering as I check to see how many potatoes we have left in the ‘root cellar’ - which is in reality a large basket in the coldest part of the garage. Plenty of Irish whites for soup making. I grab an onion and some garlic while I’m down there, making a stop at the freezer for a pack of leeks I froze last summer.

Out comes the big pot - mine just a single burner - and the Lazy Dog’s ears perk up as he snoozes on the chair with a line of sight to the kitchen lest he miss an errant food scrap. He loves potatoes as well, and I’ll be sure to dice a few extra just for him. I chop and stir, preparing the garnishes as well to save time later. I cover the pot and head back to my garden planning, happy that dinner will cook itself while I spend a lazy afternoon with dreams of spring.



Potato Soup:

2T olive oil

2 leeks, rinsed and chopped (white and light green parts only)

1 tsp thyme

1/4 tsp chili powder

6c water or stock

1.25 pounds potatoes (approx. 6 peeled and cubed)

2 bay leaves

1/2 tsp salt (or more to taste)

1/2 tsp pepper

Directions:

1. Heat dutch oven or soup pot. Add oil and leeks. Season with salt. Cook until tender.

2. Add thyme and chili powder. Stir thoroughly.

3. Add water or stock, potatoes and bay leaves.

4. Cover and simmer until potatoes are fork-tender. (Approx. 15- 40 minutes, depending on variety)

5. Pull bay leaves. Add pepper.

6. For a thick soup, puree soup in small batches in a blender.

*Optional garnishes:

Green onion

Bacon

Shredded Cheese

Diced Tomatoes

Chives

Sour Cream

Butter

Steamed Broccoli

Salsa

*Basically anything you would put on a baked potato will work here.


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