Home & Garden: When Every Day Feels Like Groundhog Day

Today is Groundhog Day, when a furry rodent meteorologist, Punxsutawney Phil, determines if an early spring or prolonged winter will ensue, depending on whether or not he sees his shadow. It brings to mind the film “Groundhog Day,” in which comedian Bill Murray plays a weatherman who, while covering the annual emergence of the groundhog from its hole, gets caught in a blizzard that he didn’t predict and finds himself trapped in a time warp, reliving the same day over and over again. It’s a disturbingly apt description of February in northern New England during this pandemic, when working from home, interrupted school schedules and enforced isolation make every day seem the same.

All the resolutions made for the new year — to lose weight, eat a healthier diet, exercise more — have already wobbled and fallen by the wayside for us, I reflected as I vacuumed the light film of dust from the clanking exercise machine taking up undeserved space in a spare room. There has been some desultory talk of investing in a Pelleton-type bicycle, but by the time we decide to do it, the weather will probably have warmed enough that we’ll get outside more and forget about it.

Also in a death spiral is our resolve to leave behind desserts and snacks once the holidays were over. Who are we kidding here? Who could get through a pandemic winter without the comfort of a cookie or two, or some chips and dips? Does anyone in the world care right now if we lose 10 or 20 pounds? I suspect not.

But we have found, amidst the wreckage of our resolutions, a few new habits that have been easier to maintain, namely cutting back on salt and trying to make even comfort food lower in fat. While it’s true that most processed foods are loaded with salt, as well as preservatives — including seemingly benign things like bagels or a loaf of bread, canned vegetable soups, so-called healthy vegetable juices and all manner of sausages and luncheon meats — if you ask any good cook or chef, they’ll confess that salt and butter are the two ingredients that make any recipe better, even home-cooked ones. We have long used an herb/salt combination at the table and for cooking and, to further cut back on salt, found a mix of 24 herbs and spices with no sodium at all to enliven an omelet or salad dressing. Even my go-to favorite for seafood and chicken, Old Bay seasoning, gets its kick more from spices and herbs than salt. I also mixed together a shaker of cumin and smoked paprika, and it’s become another favorite to liven things up. We’re still eating comforting stews and chowders and favorites like mac-n-cheese, but we’ve cut down on salt in favor of herbs, upped the amount of vegetables, and in general tried to lighten them up. I’ve also used my favorite pie crust replacement for kale- and greens-loaded quiches. Instead of a pie crust, just butter a pie plate or tart pan heavily and cover the bottom with about a cup of freshly grated breadcrumbs. Press them down firmly and then fill as usual. Trust me, you’ll never even notice the absence of a traditional rolled pie crust.

You can’t live in Maine and not make chowder, whether it be fish or vegetable. We’ve been making a combination of the two, adding corn and carrots to the traditional fish, potatoes and onions, and using a vegetable stock base with just a cup of milk added in at the end, rather than the traditional can of evaporated milk. Because we always have canned clams in the cupboard to make pasta with clam sauce, we toss a can into the chowder for extra flavor as well. With bread fresh from the oven and a salad, it’s a perfect winter’s day dinner.

L I G H T E R   F I S H   C H O W D E R

2 Tbsp. butter
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 large stalks celery, finely chopped
2 Tbsp. flour
1 tsp. Old Bay seasoning
2 large carrots, peeled and chopped
2 medium potatoes, peeled and cubed
2 cups vegetable stock
1 10 oz. can clams, drained, juice reserved
1 cup corn, frozen or canned and drained
1 lb. fresh fish fillet like cod or pollock
2 cups milk
grind or two of black pepper
In a large pot, melt butter. Add onions and celery, cooking until vegetables are translucent, about five minutes. Sprinkle flour and Old Bay over top and stir 1 to 2 minutes. Add carrots, potatoes, vegetable stock and reserved clam juice. Bring to a boil, then cover and cook on low until potatoes and carrots are soft, about 10 minutes. Mash some of the potatoes so they thicken the soup or blend a bit with an immersion blender. Add clams and corn and cook another 5 minutes. Lay fish fillets atop the vegetables, add the milk, and simmer just until fish is flaky. If you have the time, let chowder sit for an hour or so, then reheat before serving.