3 Dinner Lessons Learned from My First Midwestern Winter

updated May 24, 2019
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(Image credit: Phil McDonald)

I grew up in Santa Cruz, California, a small coastal town known for its killer surf spots and penchant for crunchy hippie eats. My parents maintained an organic garden with leafy greens, fruit trees, and a greenhouse that ruined my ability to eat store-bought tomatoes.

On top of our backyard bounty, my stepfather loves to fish; he took his tiny kayak out nearly every weekend to catch salmon, crab, and sardines. He occasionally capsized, yet somehow always managed to drag himself to shore, seafood in hand.

(Image credit: Bonnie Horgos)

And, as if my parents weren’t stereotypically California enough, they decided to join the Fungus Federation when I was in elementary school. When my stepfather wasn’t paddling through the Monterey Bay, we were driving up the coast to Mendocino to hunt for mushrooms. We’d pull ourselves deep into the forest, where canyons glowed with the bright apricot of chanterelles, and meaty porcinis blended in with the dank earth.

We harvested so many mushrooms every year that my parents would dehydrate pounds of fungus at a time, the smell making me queasy. To this day, I still can’t eat a mushroom without gagging.

(Image credit: Bonnie Horgos)

Still, mushrooms aside, having such a bounty of ingredients so readily available was great. Dinner was always simple and fresh — and on the patio whenever possible. Coming home after school, I’d work on my homework at the kitchen counter while my stepfather chopped vegetables for the grill. Covered with a bit of olive oil and some salt and pepper, they’d gently caramelize over the flame.

My job was making the salad; I’d harvest handfuls of greens in the backyard that were still warm from the sun. Pair that with some fish, maybe a couscous salad, and dinner was served.

My First Minnesota Winter

Then, early in 2013, I met and fell in love with a guy from Minnesota. From his light blond hair to his love of the Vikings, he was deeply Midwestern. And, after a year and a half, we moved to his home state, where I braced myself for my first real winter.

That first Minnesota winter, I made the mistake of not keeping a well-stocked kitchen. This resulted in frequently ordering a pizza known as “The Magnum,” which could easily feed the two of us for five evenings. The word “pizza” appeared an embarrassing number of times on my bank statement.

While we still relied on the occasional pie my second winter here, I knew we needed to strategize a bit more.

(Image credit: Bonnie Horgos)

Lesson 1: A packed pantry is key.

The most important lesson I learned from that first year was this: In order to endure a Minnesota winter, you need a packed pantry. Sure, you can always hit the grocery store — unless there’s a blizzard, or you’re simply too cold to move.

The most vivid meal that comes to mind is making clams linguine with a couple friends. I’d turned up the Frank Sinatra and we’d gathered in the kitchen — it truly is the warmest room in the house. The onions and garlic slowly cooked in a heap of butter. We tossed in a couple cans of clams and a glug of wine, then a pile of cooked linguine. Salt, pepper, and dried parsley finished it off. Paired with an earthy, mineral-heavy wine, it was the perfect meal.

Lesson 2: Preserve everything and anything.

Another essential in surviving a Minnesota winter? Preserving produce. Just about every vegetable can be pickled (something I learned from my Hungarian father) and nearly every fruit can be made into jam — or frozen! Herbs can be dried, sauces made, and in this way you can capture and savor those summertime tastes during those long winter nights.

Lesson 3: Friends are medicine (and a deck of cards is essential).

The most important thing I learned, however, was that when snow piles outside your front door in the middle of April, gathering around the dining room table with friends is medicine. I never really played card games in California, but here, we rely on them for fleeting days when the sun sets at 4 p.m.

The dining room becomes an extension of the kitchen; for added warmth, we bake cookies or a crumble in a skillet to keep the oven roaring. Surrounded by desserts, candles, and bottles of bourbon, nothing keeps you as warm as the company of friends.

And, while I’m occasionally bitter when it’s mid-February and my skin is the color of aioli, there’s something wildly magical about following the seasons. Before moving to Minnesota, I’d never experienced the thrill of spring, when we could finally open our windows, let the fresh air in, and dine beneath our budding maple tree.

How do you prepare your home and your kitchen for the colder months?