Winter Rations -November/December 2011
by: Ron Suhanosky
photography by: Adrian Miller
After living on Nantucket for seven winters, I know that by now the quiet season has set in.
This end of the shoulder season that bookends our cold, dark time prepares us to bear with whatever weather challenges come our way. In doing so, our bodies demand heavier, fattier and more "stick-to-the bones" types of meals. Winter cooking techniques are all about braising, stewing or roasting, whether it is with meat or fish. What is often available at the local market are meats that are still on the bone or have more fat left on them, which need more time to prepare. Meals this time of year take more planning and preparing, but the end product tends to be more succulent and satisfying. I can't help but think of the many winter dishes I enjoy which include hearty soups, creamy polentas or braised meats that fall off the bone.
Throughout the many different cuisines of the world we can find a spice, a technique, a vegetable, a meat or a fish we can serve to help us keep warm and give us strength. The Curried Braised Chicken Thighs featured here are simmered with winter root vegetables – parsnips, carrots, turnips and sweet potatoes – accented with yellow curry powder and sweetened with currants which are plumped overnight in the refrigerator along with a little white wine. While this dish cooks, the aroma of sweetness and spices fills the house and makes it a pleasure to come home to at the end of a cold winter's day.
We have to keep in mind that during the fall and winter months we need to add spices, such as the curry in this recipe, to many dishes to induce a more complex flavor, whereas during the warmer seasons we lean more toward the use of fresh herbs as flavor-enhancers.
As the season lengthens, November rolls into December and the days turn colder and shorter, the occasional snowfall brightens even the darkest days. Now that those snowflakes are falling from the sky and dusting the ground, we can define the difference between the gray sky and the grayness of the earth. We respond to the dreariness of winter by wearing bold, bright colors, and we want to see some of that vibrancy reflected in the foods we eat. In the following recipes, I am sharing with you an idea for a few things to sprinkle on top of dishes not only from this article but also of your own to help give you a brightness and new definition to what you bring to the table, just like the snow does to the outdoors.
This time of year, our mouths crave creamier textures, things that have a crunch or a bite, or foods that contain more fat. A crisp kale salad topped with a creamy feta dressing with shallots and thyme is a refreshing antidote to gray November days. A sprinkling of jewel-like pomegranate seeds on top lends both a festive note and burst of flavor that makes this salad something you might even want to serve during the holidays.
As we know the various ingredients that are available at this time of year, we also know that their bold colors are meant to help get us through to the brighter days of spring, but their bland flavors often need some help. I like to turn to easy ingredients as enhancements that do not necessarily entail more cooking, but items you may even already have in your pantry.
My hope is that you can expand on this idea at home and add some of your own favorites to give your family dishes new life and excitement, and make winter meals warm and complex for you and your family.
For instance, a bright-orange sweet potato soup can be enlivened with sweet and savory garnishes: crispy pancetta for the salty accent, and grated bittersweet chocolate for the sweet note, but with some depth. This is a soul-warming dish for a simple supper on a cold day, or even a first course at the Thanksgiving table.
By November we are also savoring the sweet Nantucket bay scallops, which are harvested commercially from the first of this month to March 31. Stretch the value of these precious morsels by serving them atop some good-quality linguine with a little black garlic, red-pepper flakes, lemon and white wine. Some grated ricotta salata, instead of traditional Parmesan, adds an interesting accent.
By the time January rolls around, we tend to be growing bored with what's available at the local farm or market and are looking for ideas to give a sparkle to any meal.
Something as simple as a whole cauliflower can be dressed up by roasting it with olive oil, and garnished with pumpkin seeds that have been toasted with cinnamon, paprika, nutmeg and cloves. It's a spectacular side dish for a cold winter evening.
Author's Note: After 10 years of sharing our passion to express Italian food and culture at Sfoglia Restaurant, both on Nantucket and in New York City, Colleen and I are forging ahead and have embarked on our dreams individually. We remain committed to our family's unity and harmony between New York City and Boston. Colleen is working as a private chef for a family based in Boston and plans to pursue opening her own community-based larder in the Chestnut Hill area, merging her love of food and teaching.
I am opening an Italian specialty shop on the Upper West Side that will focus on "everything Italian" that is needed for the table, including linens, dishware, music and imported foods, called Nonna's Table. My second cookbook, "The Italian Table" (Kyle Books), was released in October.