It’s the time of year of reflections, reminiscing, and embarrassing childhood stories coming out at the worst possible moments…
s/v Ushuaia, “home” for some 11 years of my life; a somewhat tiny space.
In my family, however, this has always been the start of a month-or-so long “mid-winter food festival”, only slightly shadowed by Christmas decor and the occasional disastrous trip to the grocery store amid Christmas carols by country singers. Still…living in a tiny space, surreptitiously making hand-made gifts, bumping into tinsel and age-old ornaments at every turn…it really all comes down to the food. Did you know that you can make mincemeat, Christmas pudding, full-sized turkeys, and every fixing imaginable whilst living on a 50′ boat with no electricity and a family of four? Whilst baking holiday cookies every week throughout the month of December…and a Pingu-themed birthday cake to boot? Don’t forget the mince pies, steamed chocolate pudding, and chocolate salami…
Perhaps my Mother was just a Christmas-time overachiever in those years, but the food side of it certainly rubbed off. Still, I’m not here to brag, but to give you the best gift I can to help you through this sometimes-daunting culinary season. What better gift to give than some words of wisdom on cooking your winter fare, to make the most of what you have?
Growing up, I was the baker in the family. For cookies, cakes, pies, and breads, I was called upon – especially anything to do with pastry. Now, pastry isn’t that difficult, it just needs to be made with love. Umm…that sounded a bit too hippy for me. Pastry needs a gentle yet confident touch: be too rough, and you may as well eat old boots: work too slowly, you’ll have cardboard. With unbleached flour, really cold butter, and a goodly amount of crisco (or lard, if you’re of that persuasion), it’s hard to go too wrong. For a fancier tart pastry, consider something as follows. For the pie fillings, cakes, and cookies, spruce up traditional flavors a bit with a touch of rum, bourbon, or your favourite liqour.
Merryn’s Rye Tart Pastry
makes 1 9″ tart
1 cup unbleached white flour
1/2 cup pumpernickel rye flour
3 tablespoons sugar1/4 cup very cold butter, cubed to 1/4″
1/4 cup crisco, room temp
2 tablespoons cold water
In a bowl, combine the flours, sugar, and 1/4 teaspoon of salt. With clean, cool hands (using only your fingertips), gently rub the butter into the dry mix. The butter should stay in large flakes, not be broken into crumbs. With a fork, gently mix in the crisco, and add just enough water to make a soft, slightly sticky dough. Do not over mix at this stage! You can use your hand to get the crumbs together by folding the dough over itself once or twice, very gently. Now refrigerate the dough for at least 30min before rolling it out with a generous amount of flour.
Is it really worth the extra expense and trouble to obtain unbleached flour? Absolutely. I didn’t grow up with unbleached flour, and I confess, I’ve only recently switched entirely over to it, yet all it takes is one good sniff of fresh, unbleached flour to convince you. Just try it. Just once. I won’t go into the rant on how unbleached should be cheaper, not more expensive, due to being less processed…
So there you have it: a more-or-less foolproof recipe for you pie shells: but what about all the rest of that cooking? I’m not going to give you a recipe here, but rather a concept. You know the old college-student concept of boil pasta…drain…pour ketchup over it, and call it a meal? Well…um…I see too much of that going on in the adult world. Perhaps not so extreme, but the trend seems to be to cook something, and then to try to add flavour to it. You’re doing it all backwards, my poor innocent people! The popularity of brining turkeys gave me hope…briefly. Alas, the concept hasn’t traveled to the other vast regions of culinary reach. Have you figured out what I’m talking about yet? No? Ok…the thing is…food has to start tasty, or it never will be. It’s all very well to add some salt and pepper at the end, but that should just be the finishing touch. All the depth of flavour should have been in the dish since the first 5-10 minutes of cooking it: after that, you’ll be adding lurid overtones, not subtle undertones. So how should you be cooking your savoury dishes, you ask?
My go-to trifecta of ingredients for any deeply savoury dish–from beans to pasta sauce to chicken soup–are garlic, ginger, and onion. Whole black pepper and brown mustard seed are my other must-haves for a satisfactory dish. The method is easy, and pretty much every dish starts the same way: heat up a little oil in a pan, add a pinch of whole black pepper, and pinch of mustard seed (a chili too, if heat is desired), sauteé your finely chopped ginger and garlic for a minute, then add your diced, chopped, or sliced onion and a pinch of salt, cooking for a few more minutes. Then you’re ready to add your other ingredients in a logical order: spices, aromatic herbs, dry ingredients (meat, potato, carrot, etc), wet ingredients (tomato, peppers, etc), and finally liquids (water, stock, etc). Make sure you taste, and sniff,as you go. Let dishes simmer for a little while to combine the flavours – add delicate ingredients (leafy greens, green beans, fragile herbs) at the very end so they don’t become slimy.
Don’t be afraid to cook dishes ahead of time: flavours meld over time, and many dishes actually improve after sitting for a few hours or even overnight. All of your sauces, most of your soups, any stew, and all curries (within reason) will easily take being prepared ahead of time and re-heated (in a covered serving dish in the oven saves time and stress). Finally, don’t be scared of your spice rack! First, make sure nothing in it is more than a year or so old (spices lose flavour over time), then experiment! Some under-used spices in Western savoury dishes include cloves, cardamom, and cinnamon. All add lots of depth to winter dishes, rounding out flavours of pumpkin, potatoes, beets, red wine, beef, and more. Ginger, citrus zest, and paprika all add a certain brightness sometimes lacking in heavier winter foods.
Most of all, have fun! Don’t get all stressed out about cooking something ridiculously fancy (unless you really want to); a good meal (or dish) doesn’t have to have 42 ingredients all rinsed in virgin’s tears…it just needs to be fresh, flavourful, and (maybe) a little bit healthy. Don’t be that person who has to have every single ingredient in order to try a new recipe, take the time to play. Don’t be me, and decide to make a batch of 200 cookies, in the rain – be sensible. Happy cooking, and may you find your very own flavour of magic this season.
Do you have any crucial cooking tips? Feel free to share in the comments below.