For who, you say? Which Sheila? Is she coming to dinner? Will she bring a nice bottle of Merlot? No, but she will dash all hopes of approaching spring with an apocalyptic dumping of snow never before seen by mankind. Or at least never seen since this time last year. We’re talking Sheila’s Brush, of course; a Newfoundland legend that predicts one final storm hitting around St. Paddy’s Day, as Sheila brushes away winter and ushers in spring. We know what Sheila does, and we know she’s related or connected to St. Patrick, but no one seems to know if she’s his mother, sister, wife, mistress, or housekeeper. Jesus, the poor woman. I’d dump snow on everyone too. She must have been in an awful mood in the summer of 1987 when she snowed on us at girl guide camp that afternoon they made us dig ditches. I can’t remember what bothered me more, that it was snowing in August or that we were digging ditches. Either way, I think I prayed real hard to Sheila that night to send more snow so I wouldn’t have to spend one more night in a freezing cold tent with these bitches who made fun of me for being homesick (and not being able to poop in an outhouse). She didn’t answer my prayers, but I did pee in my pants. Luckily Kendra and the two Leslies were fast asleep.
Sheila rears her head and brush in mysterious ways. She’s not likely to hit Newfoundland in August, but I can recall snowy afternoons walking home from rehearsal in Cow Head as late as May. Five years ago she swept in exactly on time, slamming St. John’s on St. Paddy’s Day. A cup of tea in the afternoon at Didi’s turned into a boozy sleepover when I realized the storm hit before I could make it home. I was only a twenty minute walk away, but my dad had called in hysterics, telling me to stay put or I might “lose my breath” on the way home. He also told me as a child that I’d get scurvy if I didn’t eat my potato skins. I stayed at Di’s to keep him happy, and Dad was right…the streets were buried. I’m not sure about breathing, but walking and driving were impossible. We made it across the street to Halliday’s to grab supplies to make nachos and chocolate chip cookies. We played scrabble and drank beer and were kind of grateful to be holed up for the night. Sheila seemed pretty pleased with herself and was gone before morning, leaving the city to dig itself out and fight over parking spots. Didi’s mom Helga was visiting from the Northern Peninsula (where the heartiest Newfoundland winters happen) and even she was impressed with the size of the snowbanks.
We all like to cling to the hope that when Sheila comes on or around St. Paddy’s day, that’s it, we’re good! Winter’s over! Put away the snow blower, break out the barbecue, put on some shorts and take off your socks. St. John’s: going sockless and pantless in April is not cool. Everyone thinks you’re an idiot, except all the other people drinking with you on the patio at the Sundance. Put your clothes back on and layer accordingly until July.
Whether winter’s done in March or June is completely up to herself, and while you can’t do much about warming up the outside, you can warm up your insides plenty. Here’s a quick and easy soup that will do the job, especially if you’re feeling a cold coming on. I’m a bit old fashioned when it comes to medicating myself. I make it a personal mission to try and fight an illness naturally before I reach for the Neocitran (I love love, it makes me so warm and sleepy). Sometimes I fail when that voice in my head says “put down the echinacea hippie and have some of that warm lemon drink” but I’m trying harder with every flu. One night a few months ago I was feeling a cold coming on before a trip out of town and I was desperate to jump on it before it took hold. I opened my baking/medication cupboard (yeah, so?) and there was a ziploc bag full of Life brand cherry-flavoured sleepy time fun medicine packets. I resisted and poked around in my fridge; I was feeling a Thai style curry soup, but I had no lime and no cilantro. What I did have was some fresh mint and a few lemons. And after a couple of bowls of soup, what I didn’t feel the next morning was a cold coming on.
Not many exact ingredients or measurements here, but give this a go the next time you’re trying to fight a cold. Finely chop one onion and as much garlic, ginger and chillies as you can handle (I used about 6 cloves of garlic oh yeeeeah, a one inch piece of ginger and one small red Fresno) and saute in a little olive oil in a medium sized pot. Add some baby red potatoes cut in half. Season with soya sauce and some turmeric and a heaping tablespoon of red curry paste or a little less, depending on your heat tolerance. Give everything a stir, then top up with chicken or veg broth and a little coconut milk. Simmer until the potatoes are tender, then add the juice from one lemon (half a lemon if you like, but I like the huge hit of citrus, especially when I’m sick). Spoon into bowls and sprinkle with chopped fresh mint (If you can’t find fresh mint that day at the grocery store, cilantro and lemon balm are pretty good substitutions). Serve with a small bowl of basmati rice.
This soup is pretty intense, so unless your kids are super adventurous they might not go for it. As for yourself, don’t be afraid of all the garlic and chillies…garlic is so good for fighting a cold, and if you’re not used to chillies, be brave! Now is the best time to start working on your spice tolerance. The rice helps lessen the heat a little, or if you’re completely hopeless, leave out the chilli. I joke, you’re not completely hopeless. Never pay attention to someone who keeps her meds and baking chocolate in the same kitchen cupboard. Anyways, this soup works. The spicy, salty, citrusy combination is really something, especially when the fresh mint hits the hot soup and everything gets all lovely and aromatic. I’ve made this a few times in the past few months, even when I’m not sick and want something to warm up my belly when it’s miserable out.
When it’s cold, salad doesn’t cut it. It’s difficult to eat seasonally in Newfoundland, but there’s always soup and there’s always stew. I love going the traditional route using good moose, beef or chicken, but doing something a bit more exotic in winter and experimenting with different flavours and spices is what prevents me from having a seasonal nervous breakdown. I crank the heat, buy a case of beer from somewhere hot and far away, put on Balkan Beat Box, and make something that’s bursting with something other than salt and pepper. Surprisingly not that hard in St. John’s if you don’t mind making your way to a few shops in search of the perfect spices. A couple of months ago I was poking around on the Ottolenghi website (my latest obsession and newest cookbook, sweet mother, just beautiful) and found a recipe for shakshuka. His is done with ground beef and roasted eggplant and between Food for Thought and Belbin’s, I was able to find sumac and preserved lemons. If you can’t find an ingredient at either of those spots, it generally can’t be found in town and if either of them ever shut down I’m leaving the province.
Pair this one with a dead easy recipe for Middle Eastern style flatbread and you’re good to go. Anna Olson’s recipe uses baking powder so you don’t have to fuss around with yeast. And you can make a pile of them ahead of time and heat them up in the oven when your shakshuka or curry is ready. I didn’t have any coriander seeds banging around, but they were super tasty with cumin seeds. Both the shashuka and the flatbread reheated beautifully the next day over a tray of tea candles in the oven when the power went out for fourteen hours. Hopefully Sheila won’t brush us that hard in the next few weeks.
So keep the halter tops and sandals away a little while longer. Think of Sheila’s Brush as another small blessing and use her as an excuse to break out your cold meds and softpants. It could be worse, you could be digging ditches at girl guide camp. Enjoy your shakshuka!