The Entree

A Southerner’s Take on Winter Cooking

February 28, 2015

Venison ceviche on sweet potato chips from Austin's Dai Due restaurant.

I wore a sleeveless shirt in January. And no, it wasn’t a mistake. At 8 a.m. on January 28 in Austin, Texas, it was 60 degrees and I needed a light jacket. By noon, it was 81 degrees and sunny. I couldn’t help but smirk as I watched less-experienced Southerners tie their coats around their waists, like an army of moms from the early 1990s.

This isn’t unusual. In Texas, we get excited when it dips below 65 degrees. The more delusional among us joyously pull out our winter “coat” from the closet and don hats, mittens, and closed-toe shoes. It’s not uncommon to see people wearing shorts and T-shirts next to others defiantly sporting jackets, UGG boots, and scarfs. Of course, they’re not totally unjustified, since the weather bounces between lows in the 40s and highs in the 80s.

All of this temperature tennis can make me feel a bit schizophrenic. As much as I want to get down with rib-sticking meals that are hot off the stove, most of the time it doesn’t fit with the weather. Chicken-pot pie, chili, lasagna, beef stew, eggplant Parmesan: All of those sound too heavy when you’re slightly sweaty just from walking your dog around the block.

Todd Duplechan, the chef and owner of Austin restaurant Lenoir, says we should eat for the season and the climate. If you live in a hotter part of the world, eat food that complements it, which to him means acidic, citrusy, brothy, and spicy. He’s actually created his entire restaurant around the idea of “hot weather food,” with influences from places as varied as Louisiana and Southeast Asia. One of my favorite dishes? His persimmon salad: Think hearty slices of persimmons and greens over a spiced pecan puree, a clean dish that leaves you feeling light yet satisfied.

Speaking of things to keep you feeling satisfied but not weighed down, here are a few other spins on winter food for warm weather.

Light Proteins
In the summer, I practically live on ceviche. It’s too sweltering to slave over the stove or even consider eating anything hot, and the dish refreshes like nothing else.

Ironically, citrus, one of ceviche’s main components, flourishes in winter, which makes it perfect for those months. But January and February mean you’re programmed to want something warm and comforting. Get the best of both worlds with this grilled fish with orange-fennel salsa.

Austin chef and owner Jesse Griffiths doesn’t abandon ceviche just because it’s wintertime, though: He just adjusts the protein. His 100 percent local restaurant, Dai Due, uses the citrus that’s in season to marinate venison, goat, or lamb, then serves it with more citrus on top of crispy sweet potato chips (pictured at top).

If raw venison sounds a bit too risky to you, try this recipe for grilled lamb kebabs with tzatziki. You’re still eating a hearty meat, but the tzatziki with yogurt and cucumber keeps it cool.

Invigorating Herbs
Cold weather calls to mind stews rich with bay leaves and roasted potatoes with rosemary, but when you’re in a warmer climate, those dishes don’t necessarily make sense. But that doesn’t mean you have to abandon herbs. On the contrary, they provide flavor without adding weight!

Cilantro is one of my favorite tastes. (Thankfully, I’m not one of the minority that thinks it tastes like soap.) Use it in Mexican recipes or Thai and Vietnamese cuisine. Or double up on seasonal produce with this cilantro-lime roasted cauliflower, which would be a great side dish with the grilled fish above.

Or try another winter herb in a sweet concoction: rosemary ice cream. I like this version with maple for a wintry take. Top it with walnuts or pecans for a nutty crunch.

Cooling Noodles
Everyone craves carbs when it’s cold out, and—let’s be real—most of us crave them when it’s not cold out, too. But a big plate of steaming pasta when it might as well be July? No, thank you.

Instead, I opt for chilled pasta dishes like this pesto pasta with arugula and goat cheese or a Korean-inspired one with buckwheat noodles, green onions, and cabbage.

Creative Vegetable Sides
I used to be in doubt about how to cook root vegetables and cruciferous vegetables, both of which pop up in winter like bunnies in springtime. That is, until I discovered these two little words: Roast ’em. It’s my foolproof method for anything that my CSA box throws at me. Of course, when it’s 80 degrees out, you don’t exactly crave roasted potatoes slathered with steaming butter. So it’s time to get a little creative.

Beets are probably the easiest, since you can roast them and then cool them to room temperature before eating. For something simple that seems super fancy, try making a beet vinaigrette, a technique I learned from San Antonio chef Louis Singh. Combine olive oil, roasted beets, and shallots in an immersion blender. Then serve the warm vinaigrette in dollops over more roasted beets and arugula with goat cheese and blood orange slices: a perfect winter dish when it’s 75 degrees outside.

Then there are sweet potatoes and winter squash. Butternut squash might just be the most perfect food in the world, because every part of it is absolutely delectable. Roast the seeds with a smattering of salt and you have a crunchy treat. Roast the flesh itself and then use it in a fabulously unusual recipe like this butternut squash hummus with white beans and garlic. Or, taking a note from Duplechan’s book, go with something spicy, like this Thai red curry with kabocha squash (butternut’s sugar-kissed cousin). And lest sweet potatoes feel left out of this healthy carb party, I can’t resist the combination of the tuber with crunchy, refreshing pomegranate seeds in this sweet potato and pomegranate salad.

Last but not least, speaking of salads, use two more ingredients that are in season with this broccoli and mushroom salad. Apple cider vinegar and fresh dill, basil, and tarragon cool you down, as does serving it at room temperature.

Fruit Desserts
Did you know that figs have more than one growing season? Various varieties grow in Texas at different times of the year, some in summer and some in winter. Considering that they’re my favorite fruit, that makes me (and the rest of the state) pretty lucky. I like this lemon-fig cake because it combines two of the best fruits of the season.

But the colder months usher in more than just citrus and figs. Cranberries are traditionally a Thanksgiving food, but keep the tartness coming through March with this cranberry sorbet, sure to revive you after a steamy winter day. Or try this pomegranate cheesecake. The tangy rounds add a nice, fresh complement to sweet, cheesy goodness.

Anytime Smoothies
It might seem like we’re finished with seasonal vegetables, but think again!

Winter produce like kale, apples, parsley, beets, and lemons make a killer green juice. Apples are the key to making this mixture sweet and easy to drink, and the lemon juice and parsley cut the bitterness even more.

Of course, green juice still tastes, well, green. I’ve developed a smoothie recipe that tastes like dessert but delivers a vegetable- and protein-packed punch (get the recipe below). In fact, it has both broccoli and spinach in it, but all you’ll taste is chocolate and almond butter.

The key to this recipe is to use frozen broccoli. Raw, it tastes like a wet shoe. But frozen, it adds creaminess and bulk, like a banana without any extra sugar.

Get the Recipe: Chocolate-Almond Butter Protein Smoothie

Chocolate-Almond Butter Protein Smoothie

Megan Giller runs the Zagat blog in Austin and also writes for Slate, the New York Times, and Food Republic. She loves tasting chocolate and hiking with her dog, Echo. Follow her on Twitter @MeganGiller.

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