The Son, who is nothing if not consistent, gets up every single morning for an unvarying routine of cereal and a copy of Asterix or TinTin. For the past month, he has added to his early repertoire the question, “Why is it so dark?”
There is no mistake: we are in the bleak midwinter.
Today was exceptionally dark, due to the clouds that covered what little rays of sun were peeping over our eastern field. But it’s not all gloomy.
The hedgerows are valiantly holding onto the last colour of the season. The tips of this past year’s hazel shoots are spangled with golden leaves which glow in the morning mist. In the late afternoon, before the sun dips below the horizon, these wavy gold-tipped branches – swaying above the denuded ash, blackthorn, may, and rowan – are beautiful, and unexpected.
There are other bright spots. Tonight was The Twins’ Christmas Carol Service at the local church. Every year the primary school holds its Key Stage 2 pageant at St Petroc’s, an ancient stone edifice in the village. We all rushed through dinner so we could get to the church with plenty of time to spare – this is the last year we will have children in this event, and we were determined to sit in a centre pew with a view, as opposed to behind a 3-foot wide stone pillar on the side of the church (as we have sat in the past 6 years).
With a half hour to go before the service, we arrived to find the church bells ringing joyfully, and throngs of people, flashlights ablaze, headed to the entrance. Once inside, we found that almost all the seats were occupied or reserved. Reserved! How come we didn’t know about this?! After a bit of grumbling, we found our seats (on the left, two rows behind a pillar).
We settled in, and once the service started, we realised it didn’t matter where we were seated. Much like the Son’s breakfast schedule, the routine of the Christmas show is fairly established. The children do their best to look occupied while the narrator gives the gist of the story (which, as you can imagine, doesn’t change too much from year to year). There are always shepherds and angels, and the baby Jesus makes an appearance as a bundle of cloth. In a surprise twist, this year there was no Mary and there was no Joseph. The height of the ceiling combined with the lack of any audio equipment makes the storyline moot anyway.
As in past years, the shepherds’ heads were bedecked with tea towels; and also as in past years, after we got past the amusement, we conceded that it looked surprisingly authentic. Once again, The Angels’ heads were encircled with tinsel which sparkled cheerily in the dim church light and added a cheesy, ethereal festivity. As usual, the audience, made up of parents, grandparents and siblings, was rapt and happy. And, as it has happened every year, when the children sang, their voices – clear and bright –filled the vaulted space with untroubled beauty.
* * *
At some point soon, just like every year, our neighbour Mike will trim the hedgerows near our house. All the golden leaves will be cut off, but it won’t trouble me. Just like when we take down the Christmas decorations after the new year, and suddenly the house looks clean and bright, the hedgerows will look tidy and crisp. Suddenly our narrow lanes will seem slightly wider, and unruly branches will cease to scritch against our car when we have to pull into a layby to let another driver pass. Over time, the light will increase, the hedgerows will grow new leaves, the children will move to secondary school, and the cycle will continue.
Sweet & Sour Pumpkin Salad
It’s pumpkin season still, and it will be for some time. Luckily, squash is a versatile vegetable – what other vegetable can you use to make a good stew, pie, purée, soup, cake, bread, casserole, side dish or salad? I like this particular salad for its brightness – the vinegar lifts the squash out of a tendency to feel heavy, the sugar balances the tartness, and the radicchio adds the edge that keeps it from veering into pie territory. Plus, it’s beautiful to look at, and easy to make.
I got the inspiration for this recipe from two sources, which – oddly enough – are actually the same source. While we were in Rome earlier this year, we ate at Flavio al Velavevodetto in Testaccio, and I asked for (and received in broken Italian) the recipe for a delicious zucca alla scapece that I ate. A few weeks later, the recipe turned up again, in English, on Rachel Roddy’s blog. Serendipitous!
The original version is delicious, and you really should try it. But this variation adds renewed interest to the squash when, perhaps, you thought you had had enough for the year. Flavio’s recipe requires that you let the squash mingle with the dressing for a bit (overnight, in fact), which gives a subtle yet complex taste to the final dish. This version is a bit more punchy, but it still benefits from an hour or two of marinating before finishing and serving.
- 800g, approximately, orange squash (butternut, kabocha, prince william…)
- olive oil
- 90ml red wine vinegar
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled
- 50g brown sugar
- a handful of dried currants
- a handful of almonds, chopped
- 1 head radicchio
Peel and cube the squash. Toss it with enough olive oil to make it glisten (don’t hold back!), and season it with salt and pepper. Roast it in a 190C/400F oven until it is soft, and then roast it some more until it firms up a little bit. (You are essentially getting rid of the water content of the squash, which is a good thing, because too much water makes the squash less intensely squash-tasting and more, erm, squishy.)
While the squash is cooking (about 30-40 minutes, depending on your oven), you can prep the rest of your ingredients. Purée the vinegar, garlic and brown sugar together, either using an immersion blender or food processor; or use this method to purée the garlic and whisk it in with the vinegar and sugar. Set aside.
Lay the almonds on a baking tray and roast them, in the same oven as the squash, until they start to colour – about 5-10 minutes, again depending on your oven. Set aside.
Tear the radicchio leaves into largish bite-sized pieces, wash and dry them, and set aside.
When the squash is cooked, remove it from the oven and, leaving it on the roasting tray, add the currants and the vinegar mixture, carefully turning over the squash so that all of it is coated. If there are bits of the squash stuck to the tray (these bits are delicious! ) – try to scrape them up with a spatula – the vinegar should help to loosen them. Leave the whole thing to sit for up to two hours if possible, or at least until cool.
Just before serving, toss the radicchio with a tiny bit of olive oil and salt & pepper; layer 1/3 of the radicchio on a serving platter, then add 1/3 of the squash mix and 1/3 of the almonds. Continue layering the ingredients, making sure to add all the juices and vinegar mixture from the roasting pan.