The first day of October has come and gone, and once you turn the calendar over this time of year you are travelling from one season to another in a hurry.
I noticed that immediately when Sullivan University did its final Farmers Market event of the season this past Saturday. Partly to take advantage of one last harvest and partly to promote the upcoming Incredible Food Show, our last trip ended on a fairly quiet note with less student involvement (but no less committed students), a dwindling supply of produce and an appreciative but small group of customers.
Far from dreary, our day was a sharp reminder that our food supply is heading into another season and other cooking methods. We did more stewing and braising on Saturday, more cold weather dishes such as potato and apple hash with local bleu cheese. Sausages, chard and sweet potatoes were utilized to their fullest as base ingredients for hearty pan-fries. All the food was rib sticking, no fruity vinaigrettes or lightly dressed salads, the greens were Russian kale and hard cabbages perfect for stewing with lots of bacon, onion and a little bit of apple; Chou croute style. I did my favorite: tiny brussel sprouts tossed with bacon, salt and pepper.
Cold weather food with more fat, fuller flavors and textures, and generally longer cooking techniques confirms that the summer is over. By all means, keep the grill out, you will use it far into November. But pull out your slow cooker, your roasting pans and your cast iron skillets. Bring you focus back to root vegetables, tubers of various kinds, large cuts or roasts, creams and butters.
Also start walking again because with all that heavy, rich, satisfying food comes the pounds – pounds we once used to stay alive through the winter months and which may now end up shortening our life spans. But fear not, I have some alternatives to the fat which may help you to enjoy the next few months and still be able to see your toes when it is all over.
Cooking with less fat is eminently doable if you are willing to be patient. First, consider the benefits of wise food choices and pairings. A combination of onions and garlic sweated in a touch of olive oil provides a base for soups, stews and sauces. Called a “sofrito” in Latin, cooking it can be modified with chilies or ham, celery and sweet peppers, leeks – just about any aromatic. But the base has to be onion and garlic. If you want a little more sweetness in the sofrito, then caramelize the base a little. The natural sugars brown at moderate to high heat providing a bit of sweetness and even some welcome bitterness to the richness of a cream or stock based soup a la French onion. Once you have that base it is far easier to build a low-fat dish around the center.
Reduction is another form of flavor enhancement that cuts down our need for more fat. Braising liquids that are reduced instead of adding the butter-based roux produce a nice sheen, great color and texture, and an intense flavor without the added fat. Instead of adding whole butter to finish a pan sauce, reduce the stock or wine a tiny bit longer and you will decrease your need for the binding power of the fat. If you are using stock, reduce that as well, being patient enough to degrease during the process, it will save you the calories later.
Thickening stews and soups usually means roux, unless you want the shinier cousin cornstarch to do the job. I would recommend going back a few hundred years to use the starch from the very vegetables you are cooking. Potato soup is often best when there is only a touch of cream in the process. Let the potatoes cook and finish in the robo coupe. Using purees to thicken is not a new skill; it’s generations old and still very effective.
Finally, know your vegetable’s traits. Is that beet better boiled or roasted (roasted)? Parsnips better stewed or caramelized in a reduction of stock (stock). When we turn to proteins, consider utilizing the fat of the animal before adding excess fat. Render the fat cap of the pork to roast the loin and the potatoes. Roast the chicken with the skin on and a touch of water in the pan. Roast it at high heat initially and then drop the temperature and start to baste.
In most of the recipes that you will create this fall and winter, you will need some fat. We crave fat, sugar and salt and our problems occur when we get too much of all three, usually in a meal. A little butter to start a dish, a little cream to finish a sauce helps to satisfy some of the cravings.
Chipotle Potato Soup
10 Russet potatoes scrubbed clean, chopped
1 onion chopped
10 cloves of garlic
2 chipotle peppers
Water or chicken stock to cover
Heavy cream as needed
Salt and pepper to taste
Simmer the ingredients in a stock pot until the potatoes fall apart easily. Strain the mixture into a bowl and reserve all the liquid. Puree the potato mixture in the robo coupe, adding the reserved stock as needed. Add in heavy cream only if you like a richer flavor, just enough to make the soup pourable.
1 whole chicken poached in water until meat falls from the bone, reserve the poaching liquid
2 ribs of celery cut into medium dice
2 carrots, peeled and cut into small dice
1 onion small dice
2 cloves of garlic minced
1 large Russet potato, scrubbed clean, small dice
Fresh sage and thyme
Once the chicken is cool enough to handle, pick all the meat from the bones and coarsely chop it or pulse it in the robo coupe. Do not puree it! Take the poaching liquid and start to reduce it. When you have half the volume, add in the potatoes, the carrots and the celery about three minutes apart. Continue to reduce until the vegetables are soft and then add in the onion and garlic.
Take a cast iron skillet and coat the surface with olive oil. Warm the oil to just below smoke point and add in your chicken, start to fry until it crisps and then add in the stock and vegetable. Reduce the mixture until it starts to glaze the chicken and then toss in fresh chopped herbs and salt and pepper to taste. Allow the stock to glaze only to the point that you like the crisp texture of the hash. Anything more and you run the risk of burning it.
John Foster is an executive chef who heads the culinary program at Sullivan University’s Lexington campus. A New York native, Chef Foster has been active in the Lexington culinary scene for more than 20 years. The French Culinary Institute-trained chef has been an executive chef, including at the popular Dudley’s Restaurant, and a restaurant owner.