Thursday, January 13, 2011

Warm Up Your Kitchen

Happy New Year Everyone!

What a way to start the year off, with substantial snowfall amounts all over the United States. I heard a report on the news that only one of the fifty states does not have snow on the ground somewhere today. Here on Long Island we just got slammed with over a foot of snow, added on top of snow from the post-Christmas blizzard ... we're running out of places to put it!

As the piles of shoveled and plowed snow grow higher and higher and the wind continues to blow, with evening temperatures plummeting, I for one would rather not venture out. My husband Brian and I love to dine out, always looking for that new dining experience, but admittedly we tend to delve into this dining adventure more frequently in the warmer months. By the time you figure out how to dress warm and trendy at the same time, pull on the coat, the gloves, the scarf, you feel like a mummy and then the thought of stepping outside of your cozy warm abode ... it all seems like a lot of work! In the winter months, we turn to making the kitchen really work for us.

Traditionally, the kitchen was the heart of the home. In some of the oldest homes that you can tour, you'll see that the kitchen was the largest room. This was the gathering place for the household, as it was also the warmest room with its blazing fire used to heat the area, cook, dry laundry, etc. Since everything was made from scratch, the families would hang out together in this great room where conversations were spoken and culinary magic took place in big cast iron pots.

Let the winds blow, let the snow fall. Next time you perform your grocery shopping ritual, plan as if you are going to be snowbound for a week. Oh yes, many people already do this. Before every predicted snow storm the local news station dispatches a reporter to one of the supermarkets where mobs of people have converged to shop and stock up as though Armageddon is on the horizon. But what are they stocking up on, the reporter queries? Milk, sliced bread and toilet paper! I have to laugh. This is New York, the northeast, it's winter, do these people really not expect snow to happen? And when it threatens, are they really to the point that toilet paper of all things may become an endangered commodity? Who needs sitcoms, this is live comedy right here. Instead, stock up on items that will allow you and your family to come together in the kitchen and pitch in to create a warming atmosphere as you prepare a dinner of comfort fare worthy of enjoyment in even the most severe of winters.

You will want to stock up on ingredients for stews. There are infinite numbers of recipes for beef stews as well as chicken stews, from traditional beef stew and boeuf bourgignon to coq au vin and chicken cacciatore. Cat-cooks-chicken-cacciatore-in-her-cozy-kitchen ... go ahead, now you try, three times fast! In addition to the meats, be sure you have plenty of stocks, wine for cooking (and for drinking too, of course), canned tomatoes, beans, frozen pearl onions, peas, baby potatoes, carrots, onions, fresh herbs and any other vegetables you will need for your recipe. Have plenty of stocks, beans, pastas and spices for homemade soups. Soups, chilies and stews will simmer on the stove, some stews even cook in the oven as well, and this will warm up the kitchen as will the conversations with your family and friends who come for dinner. The aromas which emanate from the stove or oven will permeate the air, thus warming the nose as well. There are so many one-dish meals you can prepare, from just about every ethnicity on the globe: Mediterranean lamb shanks, Italian pork shanks, Moroccan chicken tajines, Cuban chicken with chorizo sausage, French bouillabaise, Spanish paella, Cajun gumbos and jambalayas, the list goes on indefinitely.

Some ways to heat the kitchen using the oven include baking a dish of lasagna or homemade macaroni and cheese; and roasting a whole chicken along with some potatoes and vegetables alongside. Any baked dessert will always be a welcome component of the menu; save the ice cream maker for August and focus for these next couple of months on homemade cookies, brownies and cakes.

If you happen to own a pasta machine and you know a blizzard is coming, stock up on ingredients to make your own pasta, homemade sauce, homemade garlic bread and a tasty salad. The when the flakes start tumbling, gather the family into the kitchen and start delegating. One person makes the pasta, another makes the sauce, etc. Everyone will be rewarded by the role they played in the preparation of this meal that just may top that of your local favorite Italian restaurant, and no one had to brave the icy chills to savor it.

How about inviting a few friends for an evening of fun in the warmth of your kitchen? A pizza party is a great way for a group of people to have fun cooking together. Have a variety of toppings available, from the traditional to the 'Oh, wow, I never thought of that, yeah, that would work!' and enough balls of pizza dough to go around. Each person gets to create their own pie. If you want to introduce a little friendly competition, pick up a bottle of wine to send home with the winner of the best combination of toppings. All you need to make with this meal is a big salad and dessert. Try making some chocolate fondue and put out a platter of tidbits to dip, like fruits, shortbread cookies, pound cake, etc. Even pretzels work, there is something satiating about the combination of sweet with salty. A couple of my favorite fondues include dark chocolate with orange liquor and white chocolate with raspberry liquor. Fondues are warming desserts that can be enjoyed by a group while everyone sits around the pot, basking in the warm glow from the flame beneath it.

It may be frigid and dark outside, but it can be warm and cozy in your own kitchen. If you feel like treating yourself to something next time you browse the shelves of Williams-Sonoma or some other cooking shop near you, pick up a brightly colored large Le Creuset dutch oven. It will become your best friend every winter for the rest of your life. Another tip, don't forget to play with your food. Experiment! Traditionally stews were made from whatever happened to be on hand. Don't be afraid to deviate from a recipe. If you happen to have an extra fennel bulb sitting in your crisper that's about to be forgotten and eventually relegated to the garbage can, go ahead and chop it up and throw it into the chicken stew, why not? The favorite all-American winter comfort food is macaroni and cheese. Leave the blue box with the packet of day-glo orange stuff on the store shelf; make it yourself and you can add any cheeses you want. Use four cheeses if you want to; again, why not? This is your kitchen, not the restaurant; you are the chef tonight and you get to add whatever your creativity cooks up. Add other surprises to your mac and cheese too, like mushrooms and truffle butter or shrimp or lobster meat, for a more substantial entree. Last tip for some winter cooking, if you have accumulated some extra vegetables that you didn't need after all, say an eggplant, a zucchini and a pepper, simply cut them all up along with a couple of other vegetables you might find, roast them. Then blend them with some stock for a quick roasted vegetable soup that can be reheated and enjoyed any time.

So let it snow, just pour a glass of wine and make the executive decision to stay in and make the kitchen work for you to warm your home and your palate as you conjure up some comfort food at its absolute best. My pantry is well stocked. Another blizzard next week? Bring it on!