I can't walk through a forest without flipping things over. Moist, spongy logs; wide slabs of brittle slate; downed saplings; webby clumps of leaf litter and orange needles. From a young age I've been drawn to the busy life in a healthy forest, flipping and inspecting all summer long to see what's around and under cover. But as the days get cooler and the nights appear sooner, the under-log activity also cools. I've never found a red-backed salamander in October. And at this time of year, with the ground frosted, the show is entirely off-limits.
Now when I walk in the woods, there appears to be less—less green, less motion, less life. But gradually more and more comes into focus. Wiry branches once upstaged and masked by green. Silvery, cigar-like curls lining the trunk of a canoe birch, downright showy next to the dark, deeply corrugated bark of a black walnut. The muted orange-gray flash of a female cardinal. Brilliant red chokeberries auditioning for the role of winter flower. A proud display of cold-weather strength from a stand of eastern hemlock.
I'm talking saplings and salamanders, but as always, I'm thinking about food. All summer long I hoard heavy tomatoes, strip kernels from ears of sweet corn, string and slice snap peas, and build meal after meal from what to my mind is the year's most vibrant produce. And honestly, I'd carry on that way throughout the year if the growing season would allow it. I sure give it my best effort, subsisting on the field tomatoes I turned into sauce and canned, the sweet corn I blanched and stashed in the freezer, and the strawberry jam my mom steadily metes out to me throughout the fall and winter. But when even the preserved summer is gone, I acquiesce, open my pantry, look deep inside, and find beauty and promise in the staples.
This year, I'll turn a couple of cans of humble chickpeas into a lush bowl of Andrew Janjigian's Ultracreamy Hummus. I'll sizzle spices, onion, and chiles in ghee, perfuming my kitchen, and then spoon the mixture over a pot of Steve Dunn's sun-yellow Palak Dal (Spinach-Lentil Dal with Cumin and Mustard Seeds). I'll mix flour, water, salt, and yeast and then fold, stretch, shape, slash, and bake with confidence, following Elizabeth Bomze's tips for baking better bread. And, once I get the fireplace roaring, I'll grab a bottle of last spring's maple syrup and turn it, along with a handful of other pantry ingredients, into a simple, comforting pan of Pouding Chômeur (Maple Syrup Cake). That taste of maple might just be the best reminder that sugaring season and the start of spring will be here in no time—at which point I'll head back into the woods and start flipping and inspecting to see what I've missed.