By Nicole Montesano • Staff Writer • 

February foods warm the heart

Foods to love in February: rich, creamy vanilla custard with tart, juicy stewed rhubarb; fragrant cups of steaming herb tea, composed of lemon balm, ginger and dried raspberries; warm cinnamon applesauce over whole-wheat pancakes or oatmeal.

And for midwinter suppers: beet greens, sautéed in olive oil with onions and garlic; leek and potato soup with buttery toast and slices of extra-sharp cheddar cheese; crispy potato pancakes, served smoking hot, alongside hearty mixed green salads, tossed with cranberry orange vinaigrette.

There are root vegetables in season, including cold-hardy greens, leeks, cabbage and Brussels sprouts. The rest comes from the pantry and storage cellar.

Apples, potatoes, onions, garlic, canned goods and freezer items provide the basis of good winter fare, though a bit of imported citrus adds a lovely tang. Frozen blueberries can be retrieved and baked into lemony little cakes for a refreshing treat that makes muffins seem like an entirely new discovery.

Leftover applesauce also goes well in muffins, spiced with cinnamon and cloves, tasting of autumn and winter.

Apples past their prime, wrinkled but not rotting, can be turned into lovely applesauce by the simple expedient of coring and chopping them and simmering them for a while in a little water.

Mash them with a potato masher for a chunky sauce or put through a food mill for a smoother version. Stir in a dash of cinnamon if you like.

Depending on the variety, fresh, crisp apples will often break down completely after simmering. Older ones may be more inclined to remain chunky.

My late and experimental sweet potato crop, planted from sprouting farmer’s market leftovers, only produced about six pounds of small tubers, which are stored in the kitchen in a small burlap sack.

As I am only a mild fan, that’s been plenty. They have served for baked tubers, the occasional pot of soup, oven fries and hash with kale, and halfway through the winter, we still have half the crop left.

They also make spectacular dog treats. Since my home-grown harvest was so small, we’ve been relying on the farmer’s market for that.

Sweet potatoes, baked, thickly sliced and dehydrated, are our dogs’ notion of ambrosia. And I much prefer making treats to buying them.

It’s the time to be using up the long-keeping winter squash and pumpkins. I foresee pumpkin pancakes in our future, perhaps with more of that applesauce, though they’d also be wonderful with quince or elderberry jelly.

A pumpkin pie seems as if it ought to make an appearance, and perhaps a few side dish servings of mashed squash.

From the pantry, we’ve dipped into the frozen pesto to enjoy on toasted cheese sandwiches, served with tomato soup made from last summer’s tomatoes.

The plum jam put up in August tastes bright and fresh on morning toast, perhaps alongside scrambled eggs and sautéed mushrooms. A tiny jar of tarragon, preserved in salt, adds its distinctive licorice-herb flavor to fried eggs, while basil salt adds rich flavor to sautéed kale, which is wonderful on pizza.

The stewed rhubarb, preserved in late spring, marries perfectly with custard. It could also make an appearance topping pancakes or French toast, or tucked into a simple galette. It would be good over vanilla yogurt, perhaps even on homemade granola.

Leek and potato soup makes a lovely accompaniment to quiche. Alternatively, perhaps, one might serve roasted beets with lemon mayonnaise, especially if one happens to have made mayonnaise that refused to thicken and hence needs to be re-labeled as sauce — not that I’d know anything about that.

Cabbage and kale make wonderful winter foods in various forms.

Finely chopped cabbage adds charming crunch to the mixed greens of winter salads. And it is delicious sautéed with onions and potatoes for simple suppers or omelet fillings, or whatever imaginative uses you can find for the combination.

Kale, blanched or not, sautes beautifully in olive oil. It can then be added to a variety of dishes, finely chopped first, if need be.

It is good in hash, and we like it very well on pizza. You can also add it to bean soups, stir it into casseroles or serve eggs over it.

Kale makes a good bed for beets as well, though if you’re going that route, you might as well serve the beets over sautéed beet greens. Makes a very pretty presentation, too.

Nicole Montesano can be reached at

Lemon blueberry muffins

1 cup whole-wheat pastry flour

½ cup white flour

1/3 cup sugar

1 teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

¼ cup butter, melted

Zest of one lemon

1 cup fresh or frozen blueberries

1 egg

Juice of one lemon, plus enough orange juice to make a cup of liquid

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 12-cup muffin tin.

In a bowl, whisk together flours, sugar, baking powder, soda, salt and lemon zest. Stir in blueberries, to get them distributed and coated in flour.

In a smaller bowl, beat together butter, egg and juices. Fold into dry mixture, quickly and gently. Spoon into prepared muffin tin, and bake about 20 minutes.

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