I've often heard it said that February, though it has the fewest days, is actually the longest month of the year, or so it seems. Winter weary souls all throughout the country are brow beaten by the constant chill and frost, and pounded by even more snow, sleet and rain. In southern California, where I live, February is a bit bi-polar...one day impossibly warm and sunny, so that I rush out to plant flowers in the garden, my skin pink and flushed with sun and sweat...and the next day, cold and dreary, pouring rain on the freshly dug earth, drowning the baby poppies in their beds, their fuzzy heads drooping under the weight of it all. I cannot complain, because we need the rain, we really do. And it cleans the air so much so that even the new green grass on the sides of the foothills can be seen, which is a rarity indeed. It heartens me to know that at least in Los Angeles, February is winter's swan song, her last chance to make herself known, before she is pushed aside by relentless sun, sprouting daffodils, and barefoot children running and playing outdoors.
I walked the dog today, high upon a hill. I try to get there as fast as I can to enjoy the view of the tall mountains surrounding our little valley. The word valley itself might conjure up a delightful scene of cottages and farms dotting the landscape, but ours is a paved-over suburbia, filled with "little boxes on the hillsides" as Malvina Reynolds once sang. So with the houses all the same, and not much to speak of, I look to the landscape. Today as we went along, the brisk air just enough to bite the tip of my nose and redden my cheeks, the puffy white clouds were like little mirror images of the mountain tops, still sporting a light dusting of snow from the last storm. A lovely scene.
Back home, in my kitchen, I light the oven often in these waning days of winter, for I know that in short order, I will be complaining of the heat and cooking out on the grill as much as possible (and escaping to Cape Cod). In anticipation of another fractured family supper (thank you baseball practice), I made an Italian soup of some sort, and some dinner rolls that, while not exactly the perfect match for the hearty soup simmering away on my stove, were as fluffy as those clouds in the sky, and delicious too. Not quite a muffin, not quite a typical yeast dough, they are the perfect compromise of time and flavor...not to mention that the aroma of freshly baked bread will wrap your family up in a warm embrace when they walk through the door, which is just the thing we all need during winter's last hurrah.
Double Quick Dinner Rolls
2 1/4 t of dried yeast (or one package)
1 C warm water (around 100 degrees)
1 large egg
2 T sugar
2 T vegetable shortening
1 t salt
2 1/4 C flour
Dissolve yeast in water in a large bowl. Wait until frothy, which takes about 5 minutes. Whisk in egg, sugar, shortening, and salt. Add 1 C flour and whisk until batter is smooth. Add remaining flour and stir until combined. Cover with a damp cloth, and set in a warm place until double, about 30 minutes.
Meanwhile preheat oven to 400 degrees. When dough has risen, place spoonfulls in greased muffin tin, filling approximately half way up. Let rise again for 30 minutes (or until doubled in size). Bake in oven for 15-20 minutes, or until lightly golden brown. Serve immediately, or let cool on wire rack.
Italian Sausage Soup
This soup is a pantry soup of sorts, and so hearty that it might actually qualify as a stew. It is so very forgiving that ingredients can be added or omitted as you see fit.
1 pound raw Italian sausage (I prefer chicken or turkey)
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 28 oz. can diced tomatoes
1 quart of chicken stock
1 t dried basil
1/2 t dried oregano
1 bunch of black kale (or any kind of hearty green), washed well and thinly sliced (woody stems discarded)
the rind from a wedge of Parmesan cheese
1 C dried small ravioli pasta
1 can of cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
Remove sausage from casing and brown in a medium hot, heavy bottomed dutch oven, breaking apart the sausage with a spatula. Remove from pot and pour off all but 1 T fat. Reduce heat to medium low, and add onion and saute, stirring frequently, until onion is softened, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook 2 minutes more. Pour in tomatoes and stock and return the sausage to the pot, along with the herbs, kale and Parmesan cheese. Simmer, covered over low heat for about 30 minutes. Add in raviolis and cook for about 15-18 minutes, or until cooked through. Add beans and stir well, and continue to cook until beans are heated through, about 5 minutes more. If soup is too thick, add a cup of two more of water or stock. Remove any leftover rind chunks, ladle into bowls and top with grated Parmesan cheese.