Preparing a Local Winter Feast

Check out these clever winter projects brought to you by the staff of Sunset Magazine. Follow their creativity as they plan and execute a local and delicious winter feast with homemade wine, home-grown vegetables and much more.

Winter Feasting

We ended our winter feast with a toast.

Photo By Thomas J. Story (c) 2011

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Based on the James-Beard-Award-winning One-Block Diet, The One-Block Feast (Ten Speed Press, 2011) is the ultimate guide to eating local. Complete with seasonal garden plans, menus, 100 recipes and 15 food projects, this guide explains how to raise and produce everything needed for totally made-from-scratch meals, all from your own backyard. The following excerpt on how to prepare a deliciously local winter feast is taken from “Winter.” 

You can purchase this book from the GRIT store: The One-Block Feast.

Preparing a Local Winter Feast

Bright, chilly weather with an occasional frost, followed by a few months of rain—this is winter in the Bay Area. Even though it’s nothing like the long, hunker-down, snow-blanketed hiatus of the Midwest or the Northeast, it’s still a slow time that made us take stock of where we were and what we had.

Our wines sat quietly aging in their carboys. The olive oil, stored in small dark bottles, was a little over a year old and starting to lose some of its oomph. But we had cases and cases of it, enough to last several more months if we kept it cool and dark. The vinegar thrived, despite our forgetting to feed it several times. Our hens were doing fine, laying eggs regularly, and they liked the heat lamp we’d turn on for them whenever the temperature hit freezing. They’d hang out in the henhouse all morning until the sun could warm up the yard. Their favorite new treat was maggoty olives. They hailed down from our trees daily, tiny weights on the collective conscience of Team Olive—which hadn’t yet found a practical and affordable solution for dealing with the infestation of olive fruit flies. But at least the chickens were happy. They scarfed up those black, wormy nuggets like party crashers at a caviar bar.

We were especially reluctant to treat our trees because we didn’t know whether the spray would harm our bees. And the poor bees! As it was, they were battling a seemingly unending stream of pests and diseases. The latest two were the small hive beetle, which eats brood, bees, and honey; and nosema, which is sort of like bee flu. We dealt with the first by using traps and pouring a concrete slab under the hives so the beetles couldn’t pupate in the ground beneath, and the second miraculously seemed to go away on its own.

Mites were a more persistent problem. We had already tried dusting the bees with powdered sugar (when they clean themselves, they knock off the mites) and using Apiguard, a mite-killing gel that the bees track all through the hive. Now it was time for pads soaked with formic acid, which gives off awful, powerful fumes that make your throat burn and your eyes water. It was a good thing that the women of Team Bee were utterly smitten with the hives—with their uncanny collective intelligence, their hardworking drive, and their sheer power, which Margaret would sometimes describe as “a tiger in a box.” They would do whatever they could to help those hives survive.

Sunset's Winter Projects

When we had finished surveying all of our winter projects, we felt pretty happy about them—and the sheer fact that we’d managed to keep them going, given how busy our lives were. They provided great holiday presents for our friends and families: jars of honey, fragrant hand salve (from our own beeswax, which Team Bee had carefully melted in a homemade solar wax melter), and bottles of olive oil and vinegar and beer. Cheeses weren’t added to the list of gifts, because they took so long and we had made so few. We labeled all our jars and bottles (keep reading to learn How to Make Your Own Labels) and it felt good to be giving gifts that represented more than what they were— but were fine just as they were, too.

Our winter menu garden had been planned and mostly planted in the fall. This time around, we were going for a cozy supper of big food: A giant, bright winter salad of frilly escarole and crisp endive, with poached eggs and croutons from homemade bread (we had a bit of wheat carefully set aside for flour). Then we’d have a huge stew or a creamy hot chowder of winter greens and other vegetables, and a loaf of bread on the side with homemade butter. For dessert, Stephanie would make one of her specialties, a tender olive oil and orange cake. We told ourselves (blithely, as it turned out) that we would adapt the cake to use the ingredients on hand. We wouldn’t make beer this time around, since at long last we would have our Syrah as well as Chardonnay—and, in a surprise development, mead.

Sooner or later, every beekeeper considers making mead, or honey wine. Team Bee had visited a local meadery in the fall and been completely inspired by what they had sipped. This was no cloying, supersweet Renaissance faire beverage. It was crisp and simple, with “the luscious flavor of the honey shining through,” Brianne said. Mead, as explained to them by the meadery’s owner, seemed easy to make, too: Mix water, honey, and yeast. So that’s exactly what the newly formed Team Mead did—using some of the same equipment we had used for beer—and now the result was fermenting in a glass carboy (How to Make Mead, the Honey Wine).

The Winter Garden

The winter garden was shaping up to be a beauty. It was laid out in a U shape facing the path, compact and tidy—unlike our fall garden, which had no particular design other than to give the plants optimum sun exposure.

The two arms of the U were meant to mirror one another, each planted with the same pleasing symmetry of greens, with brassicas like cauliflower, cabbage, and weird, beautiful broccoli romanesco also worked into the pattern. The garden department threw in some red butterhead lettuce, too (in our mild winter, it would do fine). Our hardy thyme and oregano beds neatly capped each end of the U.

Among the garden’s many admirers were snails. As in just about every California garden, we had tons of them, thanks to some well-meaning immigrant in the 1800s who brought these edible gastropods (known as petit gris in France) to the West thinking they could form a great new food supply—and instead introduced a major agricultural pest. Whenever Johanna found them snacking on our pretty garden, she would mercilessly crunch them with her boot or feed them to the chickens, who loved them.

Then one day, it occurred to her that they could fulfill their original nineteenth-century purpose, right here on our one-block table. She walked into the test kitchen and persuaded Amy, who is a lot less squeamish than your average cook (her father was a hunter), to form Team Escargot.

Within a week, they had purged, fattened, and even named about a dozen snails. Amy, not having had time to research snail cooking—do you pound them like abalone and flash-cook? or braise like octopus?—relied on French-style panache and threw Shelli, Chelle, Shelby, and the rest of the clan into a sauté pan with our wine, butter, and herbs. We tasted bravely and regretted it. Turns out it takes more than a quick sauté to remove mucus from a snail.

But Amy always rises to a challenge. Boiling, she read, would help de-slime the snails. This produced lots of bilious green goo and some screaming from Amy, who refused to ever cook snails again: “The French can have them!” Several weeks later she got her mojo back, added a salting step to the process to reduce the slime, and made some incredibly tasty escargots. We did not add them to the menu, though—making snails for the entire staff was too much to ask of any cook (How to Make Escargot From Your Own Garden Snails).

Making Homemade Wine

Sixteen months after we had picked our Syrah grapes, crushed and de-stemmed them, fretted over them as they cold-soaked, went through two separate fermentations, pressed them, and then figured out how to siphon off the lees, our wine was at last ready to be bottled. We had to make sure with a final taste test, and used a turkey baster to sip from our first carboy. The wine was more than just okay—it was a flood of dark, delicious fruit. Cheers broke out all around. “We did it!” said Sara, and danced a little jig. She swirled, swished, and sipped, and got to analyze her own wine: brambles (good in Syrah) and blackberries, plus leafy tobacco, mocha, and black pepper.

We tasted each of our seven carboys and were amazed by how different they were—proof, as Sara said, that wine is alive, and how tiny molecular shifts along the way can affect the “yum factor.” The star carboys were definitely 1 and 5. Carboy 2 was good but with sweeter-seeming fruit, said Sara, and molasses character. Number 3 would need some age to smooth out its rough spots.

Then we got down to work. The entire team pitched in, including Dan Brenzel, our wisecracking advisor and perpetual provider of home wine-making equipment. Using the same techniques from a couple of months earlier, when we bottled the Chardonnay, we siphoned the inky wine into the 135 bottles we had saved up and sanitized, and then used Dan’s nifty floor corker to drive each cork home. We ended the day with purple hands, purple teeth, and high spirits.

Getting Local Milk

We hadn’t exactly been hibernating in winter, what with most of our projects needing tending of one kind or another. Then we really started to bustle: We launched Team Cow.

For months, I’d been dreaming of finding our own cow. We’d been “importing” excellent store-bought organic milk and cream from Straus Family Creamery, north of San Francisco, but getting milk from our own cow—preferably a Jersey, which produces the richest milk in cowdom—would take our dairy products to a whole new level. Imagine the butter, ice cream, and cheese we could make from her superfresh, unadulterated, unhomogenized milk! Plus, we’d get to know an actual cow, an animal once common in backyards and farms across the country. Now they’re familiar to most of us only as a picture on a milk carton.

We already knew we couldn’t keep a cow at Sunset (even though our city regulations allow it, amazingly enough). The twice-daily milkings weren’t the main issue. In order to lactate, cows must get pregnant and give birth, and the impregnation part—and then the delivery-of-calf part, and the dealing with calf (possibly many calves) afterward—seemed a little intense for people with desk jobs. Sharing a cow with a knowledgeable owner seemed like the best solution.

We looked and looked for a cow. Once there were small dairies all over the San Francisco Peninsula, but those are gone now. Finally we found her in Pescadero, on the coast to the south, at Pie Ranch Farm. She was an adorable Jersey named Adelaide, with a thick, glossy coat and sparkling brown eyes. Her owners, Jered and Nancy Lawson, had already set up a share arrangement, and we would be one of several owners.

Unfortunately, Adelaide got a staph infection in her udder right before our first visit. The Lawsons decided she had to dry up, which would help her heal, and then go through a whole new pregnancy (about nine months, just like humans) before her milk would be available. So Team Cow, with much regret, had to press the pause button.

At least our bees were on the mend. Both hives had lots of baby bees, enough to ensure that they would survive their mite infestation. Also, because mites prefer to lay their eggs in the larger drone cells rather than worker bee cells, we got in the habit of removing the drone frames every few weeks and freezing them. This killed the drone larvae along with the mites, but drones are relatively expendable, and, as Margaret remarked, “beekeeping is not all sweetness and honey.”

Harvesting and Planning a Winter Feast

The garden had lived up to its promise and was a gorgeous, dense display of textures and colors—reds, burgundies, jade, lime green. The snowy heads of cauliflower were like pom-poms. Broccoli rabe towered at the back, with sprays of spicy yellow blossoms. The broccoli romanesco could mesmerize you for minutes with its perfectly symmetrical, spiraling turrets, like something out of an Escher engraving. And with their curvy, frilly leaves, the chard and kale and lettuce looked like the feathers on Vegas showgirls.

It was almost heartbreaking to have to harvest it for our feast. We managed to stop thinking about how barren and forlorn it looked once we had carried our huge, luscious basketfuls into the kitchen and started cooking. What a pleasure it is to cook with vegetables that still have life-force in them! Everything was crisp, tight, and juicy.

We were missing the escarole (a seed shortage prevented us from ever planting it) and the endive (it never germinated), so we changed our salad to use what we did have: red butterhead lettuce and arugula. We hardcooked the eggs instead of poaching them, because liquidy poached yolks, great on crisp endive and escarole, would have turned the tender lettuces into a sticky clump (check out the recipe for our winter salad in 15 Healthy Winter Recipes).

For bread to go with our chowder, we ground some of our wheat berries, first coarsely (and laboriously) in a sausage grinder, and then finely in tiny batches in an electric coffee grinder. (We probably should have gotten a home grain mill, but we had so little to grind.) We turned the flour into a couple of rough, rustic loaves of ciabatta; we could just imagine butter pooling and melting in its nooks and crannies. So Elaine made butter, using nothing but cream and a food processor (check out the recipe for our Wheat Berry Ciabatta in 15 Healthy Winter Recipes).

I had hoped we’d be able to preserve some onions and a few garlic bulbs from the summer—they are crucial kitchen workhorses, and we really needed them for this winter menu. But they had barely lasted through fall; we hadn’t grown good storage varieties. We caved and added both to our winter “imports” list, telling ourselves we would grow storage types next year. Surprisingly, though, we did have a few remaining Yukon Gold potatoes, which we had experimentally stored in an old fridge. We had just enough for our winter chowder (check out the recipe for our Winter Vegetable Chowder in 15 Healthy Winter Recipes).

The One-Block Winter Feast

Given the chilly weather, we ate our winter feast indoors, at a couple of long tables in the kitchen. We poured our deep, dark Syrah along with our Chardonnay, and I think it’s the first time I’ve ever made a toast to wine as well as with it.

I had worried that this dinner would somehow be lumpy and bland. But it was as vigorous and pretty as the garden it came from. The salad had bits of juicy tangerine and yellow egg scattered among its red and green leaves. We sprinkled the chowder with yellow broccoli rabe and blue rosemary flowers, and it looked and tasted great with hunks of the dark, shaggy ciabatta. Dessert actually had started out lumpy and bland—it’s why I’d been worried. Several days earlier, when Stephanie tried to make her olive oil cake with whole-wheat flour and honey instead of the usual refined white flour, baking powder, and sugar, it cooked up into a dark, heavy mass.

She ditched it and instead made a lovely big flan for the dinner, glistening with caramelized honey and bits of tangerine peel. It looked like a golden moon (check out our recipe for Tangerine Honey Flan in 15 Healthy Winter Recipes).

I’d also wondered whether our winter menu would be substantial enough. When it’s cold, you need some rib-sticking food. Thanks, though, to the cream in the chowder, the butter, the whole-grain bread, and all those hearty winter vegetables—plus eggs, milk, and honey in the flan—it had sturdiness as well as freshness.

We ended dinner with another toast, this time to (and with) our mead, poured into tiny frosted shot glasses. It was a baby, really not meant to be tasted until it had aged for at least a year, better two. Even so, it was surprisingly drinkable—not “like cough syrup,” Brianne’s biggest fear. Like so much else in our one-block project, it was living and evolving, and every taste in the months to come would teach us more.

How to Make Your Own Labels

We labeled nearly all of the foods we made, because it was fun and because we gave away lots of food as gifts, especially around the holidays. It’s not difficult to produce your own labels. Here’s how:

Create the design. Use a design/graphics program like Adobe Illustrator, or work with your local home wine-making/home-brew store to create a label on their software.

Print the labels. We laser-printed each design onto white Avery 5265 full-sheet labels (available at officesupply stores and OfficeMax).

Cut the labels. On a self-healing mat (available at craft stores and, line up a metal ruler along the label’s edge and use a craft knife (available at craft stores and to cut out each label. (We also tried trimming labels with a paper cutter, but sticky bits gummed up the blade.)

Stick them on. Make sure the surface of the container to be labeled is clean and dry. Peel back one corner of the label and use that sticky spot to help you position the label on the surface. Then reach under the label and gently remove the backing with one hand; with the other, smooth down the label as you peel off the backing. Use a paper towel to do the smoothing, to keep the label clean. With wine, wait at least 48 hours after you bottle to start labeling; you want to give your wine some time to adapt to the bottle.

More One-Block Feast Winter Homesteading Ideas:

How to Make Mead, the Honey Wine
How to Make Escargot From Your Own Garden Snails
How to Make Salt From Local Seawater
15 Healthy Winter Recipes
One-Block Feast: Guide to Winter Garden Vegetables 

Reprinted with permission from The One-Block Feast: An Adventure in Food from Yard to Table by Margo True & the staff of Sunset Magazine, copyright © 2011. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc. Buy this book from our store: The One-Block Feast.