Winter's Crucial Ingredient: Time
We're past the point in the winter of 2014 where a rare, smooth cup of homemade cocoa offers the lift we need after a day or two of grey, 20 something weather. This is a long-haul winter, all landscapes redone in Snow-n-Ice, renewed daily. We celebrate any peek over the 32 degree horizon, knowing it won't last. The 20s feel strangely okay, given the 2014 winter habit of hanging out between zero and 19.
Since daily homemade cocoa will not fix this, then what? True winter foods, cooked forever in an oven that warms your kitchen and helps keep those pipes flowing. If your house is tight and toasty already, turn to your trusty slow cooker. In either case, get out the winter squashes and radishes, the sweet potatoes and turnips, the lumpy hard veggies and the frozen cuts of meat that scared you the last time you noticed them. Most are good cooked in myriad ways. Let's concentrate on very slow oven cooking, and its forgiving nature.
I like to set my oven to 225 degrees F fairly early in the day. If you leave the house for 9-10 hours for work, 225 will work for most things. Or lower to 200, and know a bit more browning may be in order once you come home.
For frozen Stone Cross Farm pork shoulder, Elmwood Stock Farm beef brisket or shoulder, or, if you are extra lucky, Four Hills Farm lamb shoulder, let's start with the simplest thing ever. Pete Cashel of Terrapin Hill Farm told me years ago to put a frozen pork shoulder in a Dutch oven, straight from the freezer, cover it well, and let it cook slowly to tender perfection. I have learned this works with other meats and large, tough, flavorful cuts as well. Cooking to that blissful falling-apart stage can take six to 10 hours, depending on cut, temperature, and more. At this low temperature, the meat will keep getting a bit more browned and delicious for several hours even after it's done, in case you don't get home quite when you planned. That's the easiest, quickest slow meal you'll ever produce.
Ways to add more flavors:
- Thaw one day; cook the next day -- if you want the oven running for four hours or less.
- Add salt and pepper before putting a lid on or covering tightly with foil.
- Sear the meat, if you've thawed it first, on the top of the stove, to boost that browned flavor. Even without this step, if you cook unseared meat long enough, you will get some delicious brown and crunchy parts, provided the meat has some fat content.
- Add 1/2 cup wine or good chicken or beef stock, a quartered onion, a handful of garlic cloves (peeled or not), roughly chopped carrots/celery/fennel/turnips/daikon/parsnips.
While you have the oven going:
- Cook winter squash, like my handsome younger brother's homegrown, long-lasting, beautiful, anti-oxidant rich Kubocha, above. No time at all? Set it in the oven whole; scoop out the seeds and cooked flesh hours later. Otherwise, wash it, halve it, remove seeds, rub it lightly with olive oil, set it cut side in a baking dish, cover tightly with foil, and leave it. Yes, it will finish before the meat. You can remove it from the oven, if you are home, or know it will get a bit caramelly, if you are not. One more alternative: slice it in wedges, lay them flat on a lightly oiled baking sheet or on a piece of parchment paper, cover tightly with foil, and get pretty much the same results, only faster. If you are home, in a hurry, and want to turn the oven up to 325 degrees, you can leave your squash uncovered, and check it occasionally for creamy tenderness. Your meat will finish more quickly, too.
- Clean whole white potatoes and sweet potatoes. Put them in a baking dish, cover with foil. Let them cook forever. They will be fine.
- At a cooking midpoint, if you are home, chop any winter veggies you have into small pieces, mix in salt, pepper, a glug of olive oil, a spoonful of sorghum. Use onion, shallot, leek or garlic in the mix if you can. Add grated or slivered orange or lemon zest if you want. Bake covered with foil if you are in a hurry; remove the foil, if you have time, for a bit of browning.
- You can raise the oven temperature at any point to speed things along. For the bony, tough, tasty cuts of meat, avoid going higher than 325. If the meat is done or not even a player, you can fire up the oven for the veggies, especially ones you cut into small pieces, and get tender, slightly browned goodness in a hurry. Go up to 450, provided you watch, stir, and pull them out at the right, slightly browned-edge moment.
Most of us are lucky enough to be able to add a slaw or green salad to this oven feast. Variations on this meal theme ease my household through winter's challenges, including lunch quandaries.
How? Put a few washed greens or shredded carrots/cabbage/fennel in a bowl or lunch box container. Add leftovers from your slow-cooked meals, both veggie and meats. Top with a small drizzle of olive oil and some vinegar sprinkles, salt, pepper. Good all over again!
Life will intervene often enough to keep you from tiring of these foods in deep winter. You will have a business lunch or a kid's ball game that requires a popcorn supper at 9 PM. These will add variety and bring you right back to the goodness of real, Kentucky-sourced, seasonal, scrumptious slow-cooked winter meals.