I get out of bed, stagger to the living room and look out the windows located at the front of the house
There was a wonderful respite from the onset of winter this year, a period of Indian Summer warmth.
Then, of course, daylight savings time ended and the dark of evening shadowed the tail of the workday.
Ominous business. It was only a matter of time.
This morning: the coup de grace to Indian Summer.
Winter is here.
Snow, ice, cold, etc.
Not that I am going to spend any time outdoors. I spend no more time outdoors in winter than I do in summer. As in … as little as possible.
There are occasions, however, when I have to drive in winter conditions. And, of course, I have to walk from my truck to the office and back, or from truck to market to liquor store and back.
Every once in a while, the snow is deep enough that some shoveling must be done at the house. Three out of five times, I sustain a hamstring injury while putting on my snow boots and Kathy has to shoulder the burden. In such cases, I do what I can: I come to the door and offer her advice.
In truth, I don’t have to deal with much of the physical reality of winter.
It’s the idea of winter that bothers me.
So, to put a brake on what must surely be a result of my Swedish genes — the tendency to grow despondent and gloomy when winter arrives, to rush to a sod and log hall, breathe wood smoke, get drunk, eat badly preserved flesh, have ax fights with my neighbors and make plans to sail off when spring comes and murder monks — I turn to remembering my favorite winter foods: all of them bracing, heavy, thick … comforting.
Winter brings with it, then, one good thing: the chance to refresh the menu options.
The list of braised and baked standards is familiar to nearly everyone and does not bear repeating. This is a time of year when cheap cuts of flesh can be made tender and delectable by long, slow cooking. When root vegetables (including the much maligned and often forgotten parsnip and rutabaga) are plentiful and at the ready. This is prime time for major league starches. Fat and winter go well together, don’t you agree?
It is the time of year to switch from summer’s gin and tonics and fall’s Irish whiskey to a muscular single malt.
Winter is time to put aside the rosé and uncork a bottle of Chateuneuf-du-Pape or a burly cab or zin.
So, what to prepare in order to get the food bus in gear and on the road this winter?
I need to cook something for a special dinner Friday and it has to have some zing, some pizazz. A perfect excuse to wheel out the winter eats.
My pal BFD produced a spread last week centered on an incredible Southwestern pumpkin soup. Into a shallow pool of the soup were placed several grilled polenta rounds and on top of the polenta, slices of grilled pork tenderloin, significantly and perfectly spiced, and cooked to a pale pink in the center (the days of trichinosis are over, folks). A garnish of strips of grilled poblano pepper and some chopped cilantro were scattered on the pork, an artistic dribble of thinned sour cream graced the surface of the soup. The effect was lovely, the taste combination was perfect.
I have to reciprocate; my back is against the wall.
Change of season; a call for creativity sounds.
What’s a guy to do?
I don’t know what food comes to your mind when you think of winter but I land pretty darned quick on pasta and from there it is a short hop to macaroni and cheese.
Of course, a great four- or five-cheese mac and cheese works any time of year but, in winter, you can rationalize eating way more than usual.
So, I think, what can I do with mac and cheese that is somewhat different and interesting?
The answer: Make mac and cheese cakes — crunchy golden brown on the outside, cheesy, gooey good at the center.
Nice start, but this is only a foundation for a meal, like the grilled polenta rounds in BFD’s masterpiece. A tasty platform, if you will.
What to put atop the cakes?
Obviously something sloppy good.
Braised lamb shank would work. Osso buco might do the deal, if one could take out a loan to purchase veal shanks. Sausages in a tomato-based sauce? Perhaps.
I hit on the idea of curried lamb.
A coq au vin-type preparation?
A multi-meat ragu?
Then, kazango!, I have it: I have been dreading Thanksgiving (the traditional fare is the most mundane dreck imaginable) and thinking that, if I am forced to do the roast turkey shtick, at least there is leftover turkey for a mole poblano.
That’s it… a mole!
I’ll make a simple, chicken mole: thick, spicy — an ideal companion to the rich mac and cheese. A narrow blanket of this beauty cascading across the stunning cake …
Pardon me if I seem excited, but … I am. Very. And I decide to experiment, prior to the Friday event.
The chicken is easy. Fill a saucepan halfway or so with a combo of chicken broth and water, bring the water to a slow boil, toss in six or seven chicken thighs (don’t bother skinning them) then return the water to the point where it shimmers. Keep it shimmering for an hour or so and you have perfectly poached chicken. (Skim, strain and save the broth. Take the fat off the broth after it cools. Save the broth for another application in a day or so, or freeze it in ice cube trays, removing the frozen cubes and storing them in the freezer in a Ziploc bag.)
In a large, heavy pot, cook a thinly sliced white onion until soft in a neutral oil. Add half a jar of mole paste (it’s the best you can do unless you want to spend a day or two preparing the dish, so live with it) and cook the paste for a while. Add about half a can of diced tomatoes, a couple cloves of garlic, smushed, some salt, a bit of sugar, some ground red chile and chicken broth. I know of some cooks who add a mashed ripe banana for texture and sweetness. They say you can’t taste the banana. Add enough broth to get the consistency you want. For my use, I want it thick. Skin the chicken thighs, shred the meat and add to the pot. Cover and simmer slowly for about 45 minutes, checking regularly and adding a bit of stock if necessary. About half an hour into the process, taste and reseason.
The mac and cheese should be made with small pasta — tubetti, for example, maybe even ditalini or orzo — cooked al dente. For my cakes I made a mac and cheese with a thick béchamel to which I added hunks of sharp cheddar, shaved Parmesan and grated jack. I cooked the béchamel to melt the cheeses and added a clove of minced and mashed garlic, salt, pepper, a teensy bit of stone-ground mustard and a touch of ground nutmeg. I added the pasta and a couple cups cubed mozzarella, figuring the mozzarella would get gluey and stringy and cement the pasta together after I baked the concoction for 30 minutes or so.
I was wrong.
I intended to make patties of the mac and cheese, dust them with seasoned flour, dip them in egg wash and cover them with seasoned panko breadcrumbs. But the pasta would hold the shape.
So, I looked for ring molds and, as luck would have it, found none.
As a desperate last measure, I put panko in the bottom of large ramekins, packed the ramekins half full of mac and cheese, compressed the mac and cheese with brutal force, washed the top of the cake with egg, and dusted it with panko. I heated a mix of butter and olive oil in a cast-iron skillet over medium heat, overturned the ramekin in the skillet, gently tapped the bottom of the ramekin and, voila!, a cake.
I used quite a bit of egg on the top of the mix in each ramekin, (the first side into the pan) figuring it might bind the surface together once the cake hit heat. I was right. After about five minutes, I gently turned the cake and cooked the second side to toasty golden brown.
A cake went on the plate, with a side of mixed beans (in this case pintos and Great Northern, cooked with a bit of tomato, oregano and cumin). On top of the cake, a mess of mole.
For the reprise of the dish on Friday, I think I’ll add more cheese to increase the cohesiveness of the cakes or, if I dare, I might try making the cakes with linguine, on the theory that the strands will tangle and keep the cakes together. I am just not sure whether the linguine will allow for a deep cake
I’ll provide a bean medley and I think I will make an avocado sauce, have some crema at the ready for aesthetic reasons and grate some cotijo to sprinkle on top of everything. You can’t enough cheese, you know.
And, I plan to make considerably more of the cakes than are necessary for the Friday meal.
After all, what better to gnaw on while you crouch in a sod hut?