Rick Nichols: A soulful January of unexpected, joyful reaping

Specialty foods at the Stockton, N.J., winter farmers market. What might have been the usual season of hibernation morphed into something different: We cooked more, and more interestingly. (Rick Nichols / Staff)

It was a month - last month - of unexpected winter harvest, bounty surfacing from the snow like a groundhog testing the air; a neighbor showed up at our door with a pheasant he'd shot.

There is, typically, a January lull well documented on the bottom line of most restaurants, regulars taking a breather after the holidays, taking stock of their budgets, cocooning in the cold.

But I'd taken a few weeks off work, and a funny thing happened: As new snow layered over old, and the weather mimicked Vermont, old friends dropped by for dinner - and had us over in return.

We discovered, serendipitously one weekend, a bustling winter farm market on Bridge Street in Stockton, north of Lambertville on the Delaware.

And we had time for modest ambition in the kitchen - to put together, for one supper, a "No-Carbonara," the creation of Washington chef Michel Richard in which long strands of onion are steamed for six minutes to create the translucent, carbless "noodles."

What might have been the usual season of hibernation and what is fashionably called "calorie restriction" morphed into something altogether different: We cooked more. We cooked more interestingly. We invited friends. And reconnected at the table, and did it easily and happily, almost hungrily.

It was buffering, maybe, against madmen with guns in Tucson; or against our date with mortality. Or maybe it was, as one host put it, merely "aromatherapy."

Life is random. Better jump on the good hops of the ball. We'd gone to Solebury Township to have dinner at the foursquare Carversville Inn, warm and solitary and strung with colored lights in the snowy night.

But it was the next day, across the river in Stockton, that we found more memorable food. At the Milk House Farm stand, we bought local kale for a pot of ribollita, the twice-boiled Tuscan bean soup that gets its body from chunks of old, stale bread.

They were selling small, three-inch baking potatoes, the last of the crop, but far quicker to bake, and a nice size to mash as a base for the coarse-cut, homemade sauerkraut our friends Amy and Eli had dropped off on our porch, repaying our gift of the cherrywood-smoked bacon Matt Ridgway is crafting at River & Glen in Warminster.

And so on. We bought sweet, Cape May-landed sea scallops from the market's Metropolitan Seafood stand, the deal sealed when the fishmonger popped one raw into his mouth, grinning beatifically.

We sampled artisanal dark chocolates from the Painted Truffle. And good hot tamales. And Cuban roast pork. And at a mushroom stand, lushly decadent Egyptian feta.

Lillian Greenberg, who owns an antiques shop in Narberth, delivered two dozen plump, salty, exquisite oysters from Wellfleet, Mass., where she and her husband have a second home. Our cousin and his wife came over for chicken schnitzel and German potato salad. We were treated to juicy, shredded beef ropa vieja and black beans and rice at a friend's house in Haddonfield.

We overcooked the neighbor's pheasant, but simmered the carcass to make a light, delicate stock for a Provencal fish stew. We made a ground bison and pork meat loaf with Quaker Oats and Stockton mushrooms. We were served roasted eggplant pizza and hearty red pepper soup.

One night a friend in South Philadelphia had us over for lamb meatballs he'd been slow-cooking all day in his new slow cooker: "It's sort of homey," he said.

Which is what January was, an odd time to forage, a good time to cook buffering soup, and aromatic parsnips, and pork loin pierced with garlic - snow food for a snowy month, food to make you feel safe at home.


Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.