A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Chef John Foster: Kentucky weather wavers but there’s plenty of winter to go, so here’s to eating right

It happens every winter, without fail. Kentucky January magically becomes Kentucky April with temperatures in the 60’s, high winds, and plenty of rain.

Wait for it though, the ice season is right around the corner.

I guess its Mother Nature’s way of getting people to look at their seed catalogs, thinking perhaps that they might be able to get some planting done in March!

Please people, stand down, we have a lot of winter left to navigate, so focus is needed now to stay the course and eat like it really is January.

Last week’s column on cassoulet was the tip of the iceberg when it comes to winter foods. The dish is designed not only to be warming and satisfying, but to occupy some indoors time and take your mind elsewhere when the landscape is bleak.

Practically it is a calorie booster as well, an important part of our past history when we were much more active, even in the winter. A steady diet of this type of dish would not be good, as we would need to extend sweater season into mid-July. Rather we need to look at the food we have to work with, and make choices as to how we can eat like its winter without over indulging.

The method to keeping the fat at bay, and still cook satisfying meals starts with moderation. A cassoulet every weekend is not moderate in any way, but a stew or soup might be. Macaroni and cheese is a great winter tine dish, warming and rich it is the quintessential comfort food. It is not however a daily staple of a good diet, but some people treat it as such. Better to use dishes like this as a treat, or share them with friends and family rather than making your entire dinner a big bowl of mac and cheese.

Turnips — you can make them tasty!

Moderation extends beyond specific dishes on the table, and must include the recipes as well. This is not to justify making mac and cheese with skim milk and low-fat cheese, but there should be a place in very recipe that subtle changes can be made to lessen the calories or drop the fat content a bit. Your weekly winter diet should be just that; weekly. Don’t try to punish yourself all week just to gorge on the weekends and don’t lessen a recipe’s impact to the point where the time and money invested in it yields a poor product. Moderate your weekly menus to accommodate both sides of your personality.

The next step in our seasonal eating plan is to review your cooking methods for any areas that may be adaptable to healthier techniques. For me it starts with cooking fat, both the type and the amount. Mashed potatoes with sour cream and butter warm the body and soul on a cold winter’s night, but folding in a good olive oil instead will not only suffice for the finished dish but may introduce you to a different flavor profile. Better yet, roast the potatoes with some herbs and olive oil and save yourself some fat.

Olive oil tends to be the fat I most often defer to, not only for health reasons, but for its versatility as well. Sautéing or sweating some sliced garlic and shallots in olive oil infuses a tremendous amount of flavor into the dish. This is called a sofrito, a flavor bomb for soups and stews and sauces. It can be used for a bowl of pasta or a two-day soup.

The important aspect is the lessening of calories without the diminution of taste. The use of reduced stocks instead of salt or fat to flavor and enrich sauces or soups is another low-calorie way to shift some of the heaviness and fat from your diet. Instead of finishing with cream or butter for texture and flavor the reduced, fortified stock makes up the difference.

Finally, your choice of ingredients can be a determining factor in your diet. In the cold winter months, we sometimes feel the need to fill up, and often that means rich, creamy dishes that accomplish little more than that. For a change of pace, consider ingredients like legumes; beansand lentils. High in proteins and nutrients they are versatile as well. They pick up other flavors easily and are adaptable as a side dish, a stuffing or a soup. Above all they are filling without being fatty or too rich, and in some vegetarian and vegan dishes they provide an umami profile that closely resembles meat.

The tasty mushroom

Mushrooms accomplish many of the same goals, and with the variety now available you can pick and choose your “style” of mushroom based on your flavor and texture needs. Mushrooms also are well suited to low fat cooking methods like grilling and broiling, and olive oils combined with aromatics creates great richness from those cooking methods.

Root vegetables are another set of ingredients designed to bridge the long gap between fall and spring, with enough interest and versatility to stretch over the week. I’m fairly certain that our aversion to beets, parsnips, turnips and rutabaga is our past history of eating poorly cooked root vegetables. Boiling the flavor and texture out of the vegetable locks the bitterness and mushiness in. The preferred way to bring out color, texture and flavor will be to roast or sauté a properly blanched root vegetable. That would require us to place the vegetables in cold water and gently bring them to a simmer. Once the desired texture is reached, drain, and air cool your root vegetable. You’re then free to roast and or sauté to bring out the natural sugars that a boiled vegetable certainly loses.
There is no shortage of seasonal ingredients, even in the dead of winter, that should prevent you from cutting out some of the fat while still eating well, and with enough richness to satisfy your body.

Building your wintertime diet in this way wisely avoids the easy way out; fat heavy, calorie rich foods that fill you up with serious consequences for the spring and beyond.

Taking a more measured approach also allows you to enjoy the less frequent times when a big bowl of fettucine carbonara can partner with some olive oil and garlic roasted kale to give you the best of both worlds.

John Foster is an executive chef who heads the culinary program at Sullivan University’s Lexington campus. A New York native, Foster has been active in the Lexington culinary scene and a promoter of local and seasonal foods for more than 20 years. The French Culinary Institute-trained chef has been the executive chef of his former restaurant, Harvest, and now his Chevy Chase eatery, The Sage Rabbit.

To read more from Chef John Foster, including his recipes, click here.

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