For New York City folk, an upstate fall pilgrimage delivers some pretty mythical opportunities: apple-picking, foliage-charged nature walks, and oooh peaceful, uninterrupted sleep. Easily accessible by train or a car borrowed from your friend of a friend (who totally plans to get away on a different weekend), somewhere that’s “not NYC but still in New York State proper” calls to me year after year. But it was this year’s upstate sojourn where I was reminded of something so delightful, so rewarding, so simple, that I just had to share it with all of you.
Simmering spices, otherwise known as stovetop potpourri—heard of 'em? I used to spend an embarrassing amount of time perfecting them before candle hoarding took the wheel. Both names are a fairly accurate description. They are spices...that you simmer...on a stovetop. The right pairing does the work of a candle, but it costs you way less. And if you’re someone like me, a person turned off by the synthetic scent of food-inspired candles, they are the on-the-nose alternative to soothing cold-weather scents. You can buy pre-made packets with all the ingredients you need, or, you can do as I did and take a more DIY-approach.
When I got back to Brooklyn, I started crafting my own stovetop potpourri. A couple of cut apples, a few orange rinds, cloves, and a stick of cinnamon went in the first batch, along with about four cups of water. Just a note: even though you're using edible ingredients, this mixture isn't one you should drink. After simmering for about 15 minutes, a delicious aroma began to waft through my apartment. It smelled cozy and vibrant and “like the holidays,” as my husband called it.
The beauty of stovetop potpourri is that you really can’t go wrong with any combination of ingredients. Want a more wintry aroma? Toss in some pine needles, a pine cone or two, eucalyptus, and maybe a little palo santo. Looking for a warmer, more cheerful kind of feeling? Pomegranate seeds, cranberries, star anise, and cinnamon might be your kind of vibe. And you don’t necessarily need to take up precious stovetop real estate to get this done—after starting out on my gas stove, I switched over to my sous vide cooker with equal success. And I bet a crockpot works just as well.
I will say that simmering spices have their limits. I can’t imagine which ingredients would evoke the feeling of spring or summer—maybe something with lemon, or lavender, or mint? But then again, who wants to keep their stovetop going for hours when it’s hot out anyway? And you can only get so many fragrances when you’re only working with food—that firewood candle you love really can’t be reproduced on the stove. But some seasonal scents, like just-baked apple pie, are easier to fake with a few pantry ingredients. Easier to make than the real thing, for sure.
Photo via the ITG.