What's In Season: Winter Cooking
We're having a real winter. It's not that the seasons don't turn every year, but jeez -- this one is like the winters we had when I was a kid growing up in New England, when our prayers for snow days were often answered. Our parents would eventually scoot us out of the house for sledding and building snow forts, calling us home for mugs of steaming tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich; biting against its crispy, hot surface would force an ooze of warm, tangy cheddar onto our cold chins.
Some things simply taste better in the winter. One-pot dishes end up on any list of cold weather foods: stews, braises, daubes, tagines, and fricassées. Besides their satisfying flavors, what they all have in common is having the stove on for several hours as each needs time in the oven or on top of the stove to cook and develop their tastes.
But are they the same thing? Well, yes and no. All are dishes cooked in a single covered pot, with a combination of ingredients and with some liquid. After that, it gets open to some debate and tradition as to what's called what, but in general, here are the basics:
- Stew: Meat, poultry or vegetables are cut into smaller pieces and cooked in a larger amount of liquid. For example, see our recipe for Lamb Stew With White Beans.
- Braise: Meat or poultry in a larger piece and cooked with less liquid. Pot roast is a good example of braised meat. Ossobuco is another.
- Daube: A French stew that is classically cooked in a covered pottery casserole. An authentic daube casserole's cover has an indentation that is filled with water or ice; this helps create even condensation inside the pot. Daubes are sometimes finished with the last cooking done without a cover so to have the cooking liquid reduce and become more flavorful.
- Tagine: A Moroccan stew made with meat, poultry or vegetables cooked in a pottery casserole that has a distinctive cone-like cover; the cover's shape helps create condensation, which in turn provides moisture back into whatever is cooking.
- Fricassée: A traditional fricassée begins with a white meat like veal or rabbit, lobster, or most commonly -- chicken. Often it skips the browning step to keep the color pale, and usually it's cooked on the bone and is finished with a roux (a paste of flour and butter) or an egg yolk added to the cooking liquid. The result is a dish that is light in color and has a thicker, gravy-like sauce.
And what's a ragoût? Generally it's a term for when vegetables are braised together, as with a mushroom, chickpea, or fava bean ragoût.
Other Winter Cooking
Remembering that it's only January and we have another month or two of winter yet to go, what is good to cook and eat during these cold months? Here are some of the dishes that I have either made within the last three weeks or are on my cooking list for the weeks to come:
- Short Ribs of Beef. You can do it easy or you can do it fancy. I love our own version of the classic made at New York's Balthazar's Restaurant, which creates complex flavor without complex work (see our link). But last week for company I instead spent most of two days making Paula Wolfert's Braised Short Ribs in Cèpe-Prune Sauce from her splendid cookbook, The Cooking of Southwestern France. It was worth every bit of the effort and the leftovers were fabulous.
- Chicken Pot Pie. As with the short ribs, you can do it all from scratch or you can buy a cooked chicken, make gravy with boxed stock, and use a sheet of store-bought puff pastry. I like mine with more dark meat than white, and lots of peas and carrots. No onions.
- Zuni Café's Roasted Chicken and Bread Salad. If there is a Hall of Fame for great chicken recipes, this one has a place. The dish originated at the San Francisco restaurant and the recipe was published in The Zuni Café Cookbook, which is still in print. SmittenKitchen.com has published an excellent adaptation and we've added a link below.
- Frisée Salad With Bacon and Poached Egg. A French bistro classic, this salad is dressed with a warm red wine vinegar and bacon fat dressing and topped with a just-cooked poached egg that should have a runny yolk to mix with the lacy frisée and bacon batons. See the link to our recipe.
- Soups. Winter soups should be big flavored and hearty. Like French onion soup topped with a broth-soaked crouton and melted Gruyère; chicken soup with chunks of meat, sliced carrots, and dill and lots of rice; meatless minestrone with beans and little sheets of spinach; or hot and sour soup with little dice of tofu.
- One-Pot Dishes. This is where winter cooking is at its best. Besides stews, braises, daubes, tagines and fricassées, there are chilies, gumbos, boiled meats like pot au feu or bollito misto, ossobuco, lamb shanks, and vegetable couscous.
- Anything Citrus. Despite winter's barren growing season for those of us who live in northern climates, the south sends us oranges, lemons, limes and grapefruits. A favorite winter salad of mine is one that combines grapefruit with avocado and red onion. See our recipe.
- Winter Vegetables. Favorites are roasted root vegetables but this is also a great time to enjoy hearty greens like kale, chard, and collard greens.
- Pastas, Grains and Rice. Baked pastas are perfect for the winter because they are satisfying and can either be the main course or a side dish; they also reheat and travel well for bringing lunch to work. Choices include lasagna, baked ziti, or one of the gazillion versions of mac and cheese. But in the winter I also love steamy pans of risottos and pilafs made with rice, barley, or ours made with quinoa.
- Winter Desserts. Although we can bake cakes, cheesecakes, brownies, and fruit pies year-round, to me winter is the time for warm sweets like baked pears or apples with a drizzle of cream, bread puddings, rice pudding, fruit crisps, and soufflés, as well as simple seasonal pleasures like blue cheese crumbled over poached pears, or toasted pound cake with a drizzle of tangy lemon curd. Or a cup of good hot chocolate with a shot of rum.
Enjoy the best of winter cooking and let the pleasure of the making and the eating give us comfort against the cold.