When the excitement of the festive season is over, winter arrives for real. As the weather grows colder and the days shorter, it’s easy to stay cocooned inside my own world, easy to get disconnected from the world outside. Winters in Nova Scotia are long and cold and I have to force myself to be present in the moment, mindful in my day to day. There have been many of these days, that I have questioned my own sanity for choosing to live somewhere this cold, this grey, this lifeless. I have to look deeply at what brought us here, the life we have created, the things we love about this province, the friendships that have anchored us.
A cure for this is almost always to change my physical space and state and go walking. The general rule is the school rule…if it’s -10 and under we are good to go. Colder than that and I end up carrying two Beagles home with frozen paws and it stops being fun. It is quite a process just to get out the front door. Dog paws have to be coated with wax so they don’t yelp in pain from the ice and salt on the streets. A brisk walk around the neighbourhood, along the icy streets takes us past a giant, carved head out of a block of snow that a local sculptor has created. Several seagulls are flying above us and it strikes me as odd to have seagulls and snow in my same vision. Somehow though they fit perfectly with winter’s monotone palette of greys, their white bodies just slightly sharper than the winter sky.
Our lake at the bottom of the forest has now frozen over and we take a walk down the steep slope, half sliding half walking, for a closer look. There are several people out on the frozen water, clearing large squares for ice rinks. The dogs and I walk across the ice to the middle. Thick, wide cracks run the length of the frozen lake from the expanding ice. We have come to know the different sounds of the ice. Chucking rocks across frozen lake water will make different noises. A high-pitched sound and we have clear ice that’s good for skating. Back at home I simmer a small pot of cloves, cinnamon, juniper berries, nutmeg, star anise and orange peel, my mood instantly lifted by the scents I now associate with winter.
Long cold days call for long slow cooked food and my idea of a perfect, winter Sunday lunch is oxtail. Meltingly tender, soothing and savory and total comfort food for me. I grew up eating oxtail in South Africa and it was something my dad would often make for Sunday lunch. When I lived in South Africa, a restaurant called Bonthuys, in Cape Town made oxtail that was hands down the most delicious I have ever tasted - so between my dads recipe and Bonthuys, I have been tweaking it for years. Bonthuys always served their oxtail with rich creamy spinach, garlic mashed potatoes and sweet, cumin-spiced butternut - all perfect accompaniments for this rich winter dish.
2 pounds oxtail
½ cup flour, seasoned liberally with salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 large onions, chopped coarsely
3 celery sticks, chopped coarsely
4 large carrots diced
1 cup stock (chicken, vegetable or beef)
1 tin chopped tomatoes
2 bay leaves
Fresh ground black pepper to taste
1 teaspoon dried thyme or 3 stems fresh
1 cup red wine
1 can white kidney beans
1 teaspoon cornstarch
2 tablespoons water
1. Preheat the oven to 300°F. Wipe the oxtails dry with a paper towel and dust with the seasoned flour.
2. In a cast iron pan or skillet over a medium-high heat add the olive oil and brown the oxtails. When each piece is browned all over, remove and drain on paper towels.
3. In a Dutch oven a medium heat add the olive oil and sauté the chopped onions, carrots and celery until soft.
4. Add the oxtails, bay leaves, chopped tomatoes, black pepper, thyme, stock and red wine.
5. Cover tightly with lid and cook for about 4 hours or until the meat is very tender and almost falling off the bone.
6. An hour before serving, add the kidney beans.
7. If you want a thicker sauce, stir in some cornstarch mixed with a little cold water and cook for a few minutes until the sauce is thickened.