Remember when I mentioned that stunning view to the west, from high up on the beachside tower at Guana? This is more or less what it looks like, though of course my phone pictures are far inferior to the serious ones Rodney takes. (Sooner or later, I'll get his work into my blog since I'm pretty sure he'll let me use if for free, but that's a photo layout for another evening.) Still, you get the idea. And since it's approximately as cold as it is in Outer Space or the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and therefore too cold even for crazy people like Rodney and me to walk on the beach, this picture will have to do for now. And it's been cold for a long, long time, at least, for those of us used to the brief cold snaps and quick warm-ups of north Florida where the proximity of the Gulf Stream usually means the cold evens out pretty reliably. It's been cold for so long that even things that don't usually freeze seem to have frozen.
I love the things in my garden (by which I mean, my whole messy yard) most that have been started from cuttings and have a history. There are Seven Sisters roses which bless us every May with cascades of pink clustered flowers; every one of these plants came from an ancient rose bush started from a cutting by Rodney's mother, 40 years ago or more. There is abundant wedelia, started for me by Lauren. It covers an otherwise bare section of ground, and in summer that cover looks like a carpet of miniature wild daisies, bright with yellow petals against green foliage. And two summers ago, Rodney took a cutting from my friend Katie's yard, one in which I had little confidence at the time. It was an enormous bush-turned-tree with large, lush leaves, punctuated by ridiculously large, gorgeous pink flowers.
They looked more or less like this, though it's hard to imagine how gigantic the flowers are: they're bigger than my hands, and the most delicate pink color, that pink you associate with babies. The one you see in sunsets now and then. And since my dearly loved Katie has been in Africa for 53 or 54 years, (that's a lie: it's only been a few months but it seems like years to me)give or take, that ridiculously overdressed shrubbery has been just a teensy bit like catching sight of Katie in my garden now and again. Only now it has frozen, its branches drooping sadly, the promising buds of flowers that clung to those branches right up til the freeze curled into brown husks and dropped to the garden's floor. And as sorrowful as this is, even its faded glory serves to make me think of Katie, to see her face, to remember that she'll be home soon. Soon, soon.
The elephant ears, which grow to what Mel Brooks might have called Ludicrous Size during those years in which frosts and freezes only brush past us quickly, almost unnoticed, have frozen into drooping brown stalks that look almost as if they'd melted. The canna lilies, those glamorous, flashy, long-legged beauties we can always count on to return in the spring, have melted into similar sad disarray. And yet I know that sleeping under the cold ground are the delicate wild violets I treasure so much that I forbid all yard work in their little acre, the small spot they've chosen for themselves under the convergence of a tall water oak and two magnolias. So the cold goes on, and I think of the coming of spring. Keep an eye out: I'll find a picture of those enchanted wild violets to keep us going until the breeze warms and the days lengthen and the sun's benediction returns.
Just keep warm, for now. Make onion soup for your people; you'll warm them, too, right on down to their toes. This is how I do it, in case you don't have a soup brewing in your heart right this minute.
Take about 4 or 5 onions, nice big ones, any kind you have - I like a couple of sweet onions and a big red onion, and a big white onion and even a shallot or two. Slice them thinly and put them into a cast iron skillet with some butter and olive oil. Salt and pepper a bit, to your taste as well as you can while you're still guessing. Cover the skillet and cook the onions for 15 or 20 minutes, and then take the lid off and pay close attention. You'll need to finish cooking the onions, reducing them drastically, stirring almost all the time. This will take another 15 or 20 minutes, and you can add a tablespoon of sugar or two to help the onions brown and caramelize. When they're done, really nicely browned and much reduced, sprinkle 3 or 4 tablespoons of flour over them and allow this to cook, too. You'll have to keep stirring. Deglaze the skillet with a little white wine, which will make a bit of a thick roux. Slowly add broth to this mixture and then pour this back into a nice big pot with the rest of your broth (you'll need about 4 cups of broth, all told, perhaps more if you want the soup to go further). The interesting part here is that Julia Child will tell you to use a homemade beef broth, but this why people think of French Onion Soup as being too labor-intensive to make at home. Nonsense. Use store-bought broth. Use chicken broth if you prefer, or even vegetarian broth. Let this nice mixture simmer for as long as you like, over very low heat, stirring now and then. It can simmer for half an hour or 3 hours, and if it reduces too much add some more broth or water. Taste occasionally to be sure you have the right amount of salt. When you're almost ready to stop simmering, add 3 or 4 tablespoons of good Port wine if you have it. If you don't, don't give it another thought. Immediately before you serve, stir in 3 or 4 tablespoons of good cognac, and again, if you don't have any, don't worry about it. Serve in the traditional way, with a piece of nice French bread topped with Gruyere cheese, heated under the broiler. Or you can make slices of your own or store-bought French bread, toasted in the oven at 300 degrees for half an hour, until they're golden, and melt some Gruyere or Emmenthaler on top; this gives you nice cheese-topped croutons and lessens the amount of cheese you'd use if you put it directly atop the soup. And if you're not eating cheese, fine. Just serve the soup with a nice salad and your family will be in heaven. They will forget that it's freezing, that the garden has melted, that the long winter has wrapped them 'round. They will, for a little while, think about how much they love you and each other and how lucky they are. That should hold us for a little bit, don't you think?