Monday Author: Susanne Skinner
The temperatures have dropped, the ground is frozen and early darkness tells us winter is here. The smell of wood smoke in the air confirms it. We are bundled against the cold; thinking of hearty meals with long-simmered sauces to keep us warm.
New England has a definite winter. When it arrives, it settles in and remains with us for the better part of five months. It marks the end of the summer kitchen, usually in early October, and shifts to food prepared indoors with the warmth and comfort of an oven-made meal.
Braising, simmering, and slow cooking come to mind when I think of my winter kitchen. These cooking methods tenderize meat and vegetables and infuse them with flavor. Lighter fare is replaced with options that fill us with fuel for colder days. When mornings turn frosty, our bodies need to stay warm. Slowly cooked food nourishes you, is easier to digest, and helps build and maintain heat. Here in Massachusetts that comes in handy on sub-zero days.
Winter does not mean the end of fresh produce, but for us it means it comes from another hemisphere. In the absence of a garden-ripened tomato, root vegetables are plentiful. A winter kitchen offers new ways of preparing and combining them in meals that work well as a first round and improve when they become leftovers. On their own they make a delicious vegetarian stew that asks only for a loaf of crusty French bread to be complete.
The Hibernation Months
Our appetites change when the days grow shorter. Some researchers say it’s our primitive impulses prompting us to stockpile calories for the winter. Maybe so, but holiday festivities, leftovers, and limited outdoor activity also lend themselves to heavier meals and winter weight gain.
“We are driven by things implanted in our brain a long, long time ago,” says Ira Ockene, a cardiologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School who has made a study of how seasonal variations influence our health.
Ockene’s research says caloric intake increases as the weather turns colder. It’s not clear whether our desire to eat more is our animal instinct to fuel up to survive cold weather, or simply because high-calorie foods abound during the most wonderful time of the year.
The January Slump
January tends to slow me down. The holidays are behind me with a long stretch of winter in front of me. My kitchen still calls to me, but the frenzy of holiday cooking is over. The heat from the oven warms the room with smells of spices and baking bread.
Sticky buns are a weekend favorite and I’ve found a recipe that allows me to break up the production time thanks to Alton Brown. His overnight cinnamon rolls never let me down. The reason I like this recipe has to do with the way they rise. They can be made ahead and refrigerated overnight. The next morning place them in a cold oven over a pan of boiling hot water for 30 minutes (creating and old-fashioned proofing box), then bake them. Magic. They can be made with or without nuts.
If you’re looking to change up the tried-and-true pot roast in favor of something with great depth of flavor give Emeril’s stuffed flank steak a try. I do not include the eggs and prefer proscuitto to the pancetta. Comfort food never tasted so good, especially when its served with these garlic mashed potatoes. Don’t be afraid of the garlic—once its roasted it develops a sweet caramelized flavor that is too good for words.
Cold weather also means the crock pot steps into the spotlight. I try to use mine at least once a week during the winter and am rewarded when the house greets me with the smell of dinner already done. I discovered this recipe for Savory Pepper Steak in the cookbook that came with my first crock pot over thirty years ago. It has never lost its appeal but I’ve made two ingredient upgrades. I use nicely marbled chuck steak and good quality, low-sodium beef stock. We like it over brown basmati rice or buttered noodles.
I don’t give up desserts after the holidays but look for something less sweet and complicated. In our house it’s called pound cake, and there is only one. The recipe that rises above all others is Elvis Presley’s Pound Cake. Legend says it was made for him every Christmas by a childhood friend. The only thing that makes this cake taste better is a cup of tea.
Speaking of tea, sometimes all you want is a hot beverage to take the chill out of your bones. Here’s one that’s been around since I was a kid. It goes by a few different names, but it’s best known as Russian Tea. The recipe is very forgiving and you can change up the quantities to suite your taste. I use a package of unsweetened lemonade mix because there is sugar in the recipe. It makes a great gift!
Winter and comfort food go together. Recipes are often more labor intensive but on a cold and dreary day the rewards will always outweigh the work.