As the seasons change, so does our hunger — and so does our cooking. During the colder months, we like to stock our pantry with items that help to create the comforting dishes that winter harkens: warming spice blends to enhance winter stews and soups; freshly milled polenta to pair with roasted root vegetables, hearty beans, or braised greens; new extra virgin olive oil, “olio nuovo”, perfect for dressing winter salads; and other ingredients and flavorings to enhance your winter cooking.
Read on for ideas on getting the most out of your winter cooking.
Cozy up with these delicious cold-weather beverages.
Hot chocolate: One of the great pleasures in winter is warming up with a cup of rich hot chocolate. David Lebowitz’s recipe for Parisian chocolate is just perfect!
Parisian Hot Chocolate
2 cups whole milk
5 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
Optional: 2 tablespoons light brown sugar
Heat the milk in a medium-sized saucepan. Once the milk is warm, whisk in the chocolate, stirring until melted and steaming hot. For a thick hot chocolate, cook at a very low boil for about 3 minutes, whisking constantly. Be careful and keep an eye on the mixture, as it may boil up a bit during the first moments. Taste, and add brown sugar if desired. Serve warm in small demitasse or coffee cups.
Chai: Originating in India, masala chai with its blend of spices and hot milk is a delicious and warming beverage for winter. Traditional recipes vary, but chai starts out with a base of strong black tea simmered together with milk, sugar, and spices like cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, star anise, and cloves.
Turmeric spice tea: A delicious turmeric blend that captures the anti-inflammatory health benefits of turmeric as well as the delicious and complex qualities of ginger and citrus. Perfect for soothing frayed nerves and warming your belly.
In winter when you want to put together a good meal, even a great one, there are a couple of canned staples to have on hand.
- Canned fish: Oil-packed tuna, sardines, and anchovies are packed with omega-3s and add protein and depth of flavor to pasta, salads, marinades, and sauteed vegetables.
- Canned tomatoes: Whether you “put up” your own garden tomatoes or stock up on good quality commercially canned tomatoes, this pantry staple can be the basis of many a good meal.
- Tomato paste: Try it in a tube, not a can, for better quality and quantity control as most recipes call for just a tablespoon or two.
Grains are an important part of our diet and a vital food source. In the New Year, when many of us resolve to eat more healthily, adding a few whole grains — good for breakfast, lunch, or dinner — will aid in your aspirations.
- Barley is a versatile, easy-to-cook grain. It is commonly available in two versions: pearl or whole grain. As with most grains, barley often undergoes a milling process that strips the grain of various layers, altering the nutrition content. The softer, more processed of the two styles, pearl barley releases its starch into water as it cooks, which makes it a wonderful ingredient to add to soups and stews to thicken. Boiled in plenty of water, pearl barley can cook in 15-25 minutes. Whole grain or “pot” barley leaves the outer husk intact, resulting in a healthier grain, with a more wholesome flavor and toothsome texture. Cooked, it retains its shape much better than pearl, and can be used as an alternative to wheat grains or spelt. Boiled in plenty of water, pot barley will cook in approximately 40 minutes.
- Brown rice is one of the most delicious and versatile staples of our pantry. It is sweet, nutty, and can be cooked al dente. To make a large batch, you first rinse the rice in cold water, then simply cook it as you would dried pasta, until it reaches the desired level of tenderness, somewhere between 25-40 minutes. Once cooked and drained in a colander, spread the rice on a large tray, allowing it to cool. Prepared this way, cooked rice will keep in the refrigerator for up to a week, ready to use in a variety of ways for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
- Polenta is cornmeal simmered in water or broth to create a thick, porridge-like mixture. A healthful alternative to other side dishes, polenta is incredibly versatile as it can be baked, grilled, fried, or served creamy. To get the most nutritious polenta, consider buying cornmeal that is stone ground. The stone ground process allows more of the nutrients to be retained. At SHED we offer Red Flint stoneground polenta, an exceptionally tasty heirloom variety. Here’s how to make it.
LEGUMES As winter beckons, we hanker for earthy, comforting, and filling legumes such as peas, lentils, and beans. From vegetarian dal to a Southern classic with a bit of ham hock, here are some legumes that will keep you warm and satisfied.
- Black-eyed peas: In the Southern United States, eating black-eyed peas or Hoppin’ John (a traditional soul food) on New Year’s Day is thought to bring prosperity in the new year. Here’s how we like to cook it.
- Lentils: In Indian cuisine, flavorful and comforting dal (lentil stew) is an absolute basic and one of the most complete, nutrient-rich meals around. For more on making dals, here’s a useful guide from Saveur.
- Split peas: What beats a thick split pea soup, redolent of smoked ham and caramelized onions, on a bleak winter day?
- White beans: Whether cannellini or great northerns, white bean stews and soups are the ultimate coziness in a bowl, and pair well with winter produce (such as kale, spinach, squash, and wild mushrooms), Italian sausage, and even stale bread (ribolitta).
We keep a variety of oils, including a good everyday extra virgin olive oil, as well as others in our pantry. Here are a few special oils that complement the foods and flavors of winter.
- Ghee: In India, clarified butter, called ghee, is essential to everyday cooking; Indians enrich stews and braised dishes with it, spread it on flat breads, and even use it as a healing salve and in religious ceremonies. You can buy jars of ghee, though it’s easy to make at home. Either way, store ghee in the refrigerator and use it as you would butter for omelettes, sautéed onions, and roast chicken. You’ll find your food browns more evenly, and that clarified butter gives off a splendid caramel aroma.
- Olio Nuovo: A seasonal treat, olio nuovo is an unfiltered “new oil” that goes straight from the mill to the bottle, and is available for just a few months each year — typically from December through February. Its ephemeral charms are best showcased when used as a finishing oil — drizzled over sautéed greens, winter salads, soups, pastas, or polenta.
- Walnut oil: Rich and fragrant, walnut oil is a good source of omega-3 fatty acids and a delicious treat, perfect for drizzling on bitter salads, creamy risottos, and roasted root vegetables. Like all nut oils, buy it in small quantities and keep refrigerated.
PRESERVES AND PICKLES
Winter is a perfect time to bring out some of your own homegrown and preserved foods from warmer days. If not your own, jams, pickles, and candied fruit from artisan producers all have a place at the winter table. Some of our favorites from the SHED kitchen include Meyer lemon marmelade, pomegranate jam , pickled shiitake mushrooms,
DRIED FRUITS AND NUTS
- Dried fruits can elevate a simple dish by adding natural sweetness and a pleasant bite when fresh seasonal fruits are scarce. Try apricots, prunes, and cranberries in savory dishes such as wild rice, pilafs, stuffings, stews and tagines. Dates, raisins, candied citrus, and cherries are delicious incorporated into porridge, puddings, breads, and cakes. Membrillo, the Spanish quince paste, or hoshigaki, Japanese dried persimmons, are gorgeous for a cheese course as are dried cherries, figs, and dates.
- Nuts: Nuts are a versatile ingredient that add flavor and texture to dishes both savory and sweet.
- Pecans are prevalent in Southern cooking, most popularly in sticky-sweet pecan pies, but pecans are great for dishes besides dessert — you can mix them with roasted vegetables, top a sweet potato gratin, or put some crunch in a green salad. Spiced pecans (we like vadouvan) can be served with ice cream, with fruit desserts, or on a cheese plate.
- Walnuts turn rancid quickly, so shell them only as you use them. Walnuts are delicious freshly cracked after dinner with cheese, pears, apples, and a glass of port.
- Hazelnuts (also called filberts) are delicious ground in pastries, tortes, tarts, and ice cream. Add chopped hazelnuts to kale salads, pastas, roasted brussel sprouts with bacon, and wintery pestos. To remove hazelnut skins, roast them, put them in a towel, and then vigorously rub them together. The loosened skin will shake right off.
Because of their naturally high fat content, nuts and seeds can quickly go rancid. For this reason, store them in a dark cool place, or the refrigerator, and buy in small amounts.
- Dried mushrooms : The fresh season for wild mushrooms is brief, but dried mushrooms are a convenient way to enjoy them whenever you please! Dried chanterelles are ideal for infusing flavor into soups, stews, stocks, and sauces. A small amount of dried morels rehydrated, sautéed, and incorporated into a sauce brings intense flavor to steaks, chops, or pasta. Rich in flavor, dried porcinis are ready to be added to everything, from endless pasta sauces to broths and risottos.
- Truffle salt: Sprinkle a dash of this black truffle-infused sea salt over any dish to add the robust, earthy flavor of black truffles. Great on everything from eggs to roasted vegetables, french fries to steak.
- Pine cone bud syrup: Made from pine cone buds macerated in water and sugar, this syrup is cooked over low fire until thick and golden brown. Drizzle over a pork roast or grilled chicken or very ripe cheeses. It is also wonderful on gelato, panna cotta, yogurt and roasted fruit, or as a substitute for maple syrup for a new flavor. You might even like to add a dash to a martini.
Here are some spice blends that play well with winter foods such as roasted meats, stews, and soups; and a variety of spices such as cinnamon, turmeric, and cloves, that offer cold- and flu-fighting properties as well as warming flavor.
- Indian Spices: Warming spices in Indian dishes are just the thing for winter. Garam masala is an Indian blend of ground spices that most often includes coriander, cumin, cardamom, cloves, black pepper, cinnamon, and nutmeg; in other variations, ingredients may include turmeric, saffron, fennel seeds, ginger, garlic, mustard seeds, star anise, fenugreek, bay leaves. The spices for garam masala are usually toasted to bring out more flavor and aroma, and then ground.
Recipe: Garam masala
If you make yours this way, starting with whole seeds which you toast and grind yourself, your garam masala will be much more fragrant and flavorful than anything you buy in a jar at the store.
3 Tbsp coriander seeds
2 Tbsp cumin seeds
2 Tbsp cardamom seeds
2 Tbsp black peppercorns
1 tsp whole cloves
1 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1 whole cinnamon stick
Place everything but the nutmeg in a dry skillet and toast for about 10 minutes over medium heat, stirring from time to time to keep everything cooking evenly. When the ingredients have darkened slightly and give off a rich, toasty aroma, remove them from the pan and let them cool.
- Quatre Spices: A classic French spice blend popular in charcuterie and one-pot slow-cooked stews and casseroles. Allspice, a gorgeous combination of cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove, is key here, with nutmeg, cloves, and ginger.
- Ras el Hanout: From North Africa, Ras el Hanout is a medley of many spices — paprika, cumin, ginger, ceylon, cinnamon, cassia, turmeric, grains of paradise, allspice, nutmeg, mace, and cayenne. Commonly associated with Moroccan cuisine, the name in Arabic translates to “head of the shop,” and literally refers to the best spices the store has to offer. Complex and aromatic, this spice blend is traditionally used as a seasoning in meat and vegetable tagines and couscous dishes. Here are a few other ideas to inspire your cooking:
- Sprinkle on roasted carrots or squash sweetened with honey or dates
- Mix with softened butter or sour cream as a topping for fish
- Use as spice rub for beef, lamb, and chicken
- Flavor lentil and chickpea soups and stews
- Toss with fresh popcorn for a savory snack
Spices’ flavors come from their volatile oils, which dissipate in time as they are exposed to air. All spices should be stored in airtight containers away from extremes of light, heat, and humidity.
Whenever possible, buy small quantities and grind your own whole spices to ensure fresh flavor.
Happy cooking this winter! With a well-stocked pantry, dinner becomes easier and more interesting.