Waiting for Spring: How One Pagan Greets the Earth at Imbolc

Waiting for Spring: How One Pagan Greets the Earth at Imbolc

by Catherine Harper

Spring comes to Puget Sound early and slowly. First, there is the false spring in January, the few warm bright days that arrive along with the seed catalogs so soon after the Winter Solstice and tempt the gardener outside. I always seem to plant a few seeds for New Year’s, no matter how well I know that winter is not over, a few broccoli and hardy lettuces, or a row of radishes. By the middle of the month, the ground has frozen again. Yet the first stirrings of a lasting spring aren’t far behind.

As the days lengthen, even if the skies are leaden, the air full of rain and the thermometer nailed at 40, plants again begin to grow. It’s an odd time of year for eating. What’s in season is what has lasted from the year before — root vegetables, squash and suchlike — and what can be kept in the garden, such as cabbages and leeks that hold well there even if they don’t grow. And then there are the first shoots of new growth. The corn salad that went to seed in my garden last summer and sprouted in the fall has resumed its growth, giving me half a bed of 4-inch leaves for salads. In my herb garden, the salad burnet is producing new green leaves like serrated coins, tasting of cucumber. And throughout the yard are the tender young rosettes of wild sorrel, dandelion and pepper grass.

It isn’t much of a season for foraging; your time and effort will grant you only damp knees, cold fingers and a scant handful of leaves. But I find these few young shoots and last year’s gleanings irresistible, the first new tastes in the kitchen since the end of last year’s harvest. My salads are tiny handfuls, sometimes, masses of little leaves more strongly flavored than lettuce. I dress them simply with a sprinkling of oil and a few drops of good wine vinegar from our vinegar barrel — unlike the tough imported commercial greens of this season, their taste is worth savoring. Dandelion, picked young, is tender and only pleasantly bitter, rather like the taste of a cultivated chicory. Sorrel is a sharp green lemon, pepper grass a spicy cress, corn salad mild and crisp. And soon, within weeks, perhaps even only days, the first sprouts of chives will appear above the surface, marking another start of the year.

When writing for a pagan audience, it’s sometimes tempting for me to discuss these forays in terms of ritual practice: a recognition and greeting of earliest spring, or an opening to a discussion of holidays and symbolic significance. There’s something a little naked about saying “I went out today and saw a beautiful tree, and it made me tremble at my very roots,” and sometime I find it comforting to hide behind history, behind symbolic reference, behind, essentially, my own intellectual understanding of magic.

Yet in some ways, whatever lofty words I use will be but an abstraction of the simple physical reality. Outside, right now, there are green shoots. The waxing of the year might not be very far along, but it has started, because these shoots are growing more quickly now after almost stopping altogether only a few weeks ago. If you check on them regularly, you can see this. And if you go out into your yard, or someone else’s yard, a park or an overgrown lot, you can find them growing among the grass, plantain and pineapple weed. If you are hungry, you can pick them and eat them. There is still in me a great love of ritual, and yet at times all the ritual seems to pale before taste of these greens on my tongue.

In the kitchen, it’s a vexing, restless season, the time I am most tempted by imported peppers and avocados. With so little new choose from, it’s hard not to reach for some faint echo of summer. But it’s a time for patience, too, a time to acknowledge the cold and dark that is so much larger than our little pools of light, instead of trying to ignore them. At this time of year, I fire my brick oven frequently and bake bread, and then while the oven is hot I make dinners in clay pots — mousaka or lasagna, roast game hens, braised leeks. Late in the evening, using the recipe of a Finnish friend I put a pot of oats in the warm oven (a brick oven, once fired, holds heat for at least 20 hours) with water, cream and perhaps a little cinnamon, honey or molasses. In the morning I open the heavy iron door and pull out hot porridge, slow-cooked over the night.

It’s a good time of year to see what can be made with what you already have. Risotto with chanterelles saved from last autumn, or stored butternut squash and prosciutto. Dried black-eyed peas cooked with ham hock, dried tomatoes and peppers. Muffins with a handful of last year’s frozen blueberries. Potatoes sliced and baked with leeks and a little cheese.

And, of course, it’s the season of soup. I love soup. Noodle soups built on the last of the frozen broth from the Thanksgiving turkey carcass. Eight-fungus hot and sour soup. Red lentil tomato soup (which has the virtue of neither looking nor tasting like mud, a challenge that faces all lentil soups). Thin soups with ginger and pepper to drink when you have a cold. Thick soups for dinner with crusty bread. Winter minestrone to simmer on the back of the stove and feed whatever hordes might descend on your kitchen. Borscht to teach you a proper respect for those stout winter vegetables. On that note…

Winter Minestrone

This almost falls in the category of reaching for summer…. but the tomatoes are canned, oregano is growing in my garden, and even in the darkest months I can usually come up with a handful or two of greens fit for the pot. Broccoli greens are a favorite for this, though kale, chard, cabbage or even spinach will work just as well.

  • Dried beans
  • 1-2 onions, chopped
  • 4-6 cloves garlic
  • Canned tomatoes (at least two 14-ounce cans, but amounts are approximate)
  • 1 chunk parmesan rind
  • At least a double handful of noodles (shells are my favorite)
  • A couple of handfuls pot greens, coarsely chopped
  • 1 glug red wine
  • 1-2 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano, or a teaspoon or two dried

Cover the bottom of a soup pot with dried beans, though the layer should be no more than two beans thick, and one is plenty. Soak the beans for at least three hours in warm water; overnight is better. Drain off the water, replace with some inches of fresh water and simmer gently over low heat until the beans begin to be tender. Add onions, garlic, tomatoes and parmesan. Simmer for another half-hour or so. Add noodles. Around the time the noodles just start to get tender, add greens, wine and oregano (you can also add a similar amount of dried basil, or of fresh basil should you be so lucky as to have any). Salt and pepper to taste, and serve when the greens are tender with crusty bread.

Borscht

I cannot claim any lineage of note for this borscht. The base recipe came from a cookbook some years ago, and I have adapted it (some might say taken liberties with it) to suit my tastes. Somehow borscht — even without either bacon or sour cream — manages to be more warming and filling than can be expected from a bowl of vegetables.

  • 2-3 pieces farmer’s bacon (optional)
  • 1 large leek (or two smaller ones)
  • 3-5 medium beets
  • 3-4 large carrots
  • 1 small or 1/2 large head cabbage
  • 2 tablespoons paprika
  • 2 glugs wine vinegar
  • Salt
  • Sour cream

Cut the bacon into small pieces, and fry them in the bottom of a large thick-bottomed pot. Chop up the leek, and fry it in bacon grease (or omit the bacon and use some decent oil). When you can no longer prevent everything from sticking to the bottom of the pot, add a bit of water. Finely dice beets and carrots, add them to the pot and add enough water to cover. Chop cabbage (reasonably fine) and add it to the pot — add water if necessary, but remember that the cabbage will go limp soon and release its fluids. It doesn’t really need to be covered all the way. Cover and simmer until the vegetables are tender. Add paprika, vinegar and salt. Cover and cook a few more minutes, and correct seasonings. Serve big steaming bowls, each with a dollop of sour cream.