Thursday, January 14, 2010

Chef's Clog, January 17, 2010: This Temperate Winter

Most of the winters I've spent in Seattle are damp and dark affairs, with dreary waits in the drizzle for a bus that smells like damp wool and old Gortex. Typically I nod off, as the bus lurches through a darkness as dense as the one I'd ridden through 12 hours earlier, and suffer fitful visions of 1,243 egg shells being crushed beneath the feet of the cook dancing madly next to me. I wake suddenly and stagger off at Broadway and John.

Last year's winter was thrillingly snowy. I loved almost every minute of it. But this winter, the forsythia is already beginning to bloom. And the shy yellow flowers, peeking from between the spindly arms of the shrub, are messing with my menu.

Winter food is winter food because it's supposed to wrap us in a warm layer of fat, because evolution decrees that intelligence comes with near nakedness. The ingredients are pulled from the ground, or the freezer, or the summer harvest put up on pantry shelves. Nothing from trees or vines, except for kindling, because winter food requires slow cooking over a sustainable fire: as darkness comes earlier, the warmth and light from the cooking fire keeps the saber toothed cats at bay; 11,000 years later, the pot of stew Ma set to cook hours earlier is simmering over the hot iron stove and Pa is knocking snow from his boots, back from checking the livestock. Slow cooking too because the ingredients are tougher, harder to coax into edible form without a little liquid and fat. Shoulders and briskets, stews, hocks, potatoes and wrinkled apples. Thick gravy and copious amounts of cream. Bacon fat biscuits and berry jam.

Here's a menu item: Short ribs braised in porter over mashed potatoes with slivered Brussels sprouts. That's a reasonable winter offering. And as the East Coast continues to be bitten by storms, I can imagine those Chefs are using a lot of sausage and butter with their roots. But here in Seattle, in the middle of January, when I write my Specials I want to include tiny fronds of watercress or chervil, the fronds planted in a white bed of parsnip and pear puree; they would look like tiny green tendrils poking through the snow, an effect blurred but not obscured by the placement of a pancetta-wrapped tenderloin and some poached garlic slivers.

This temperate winter is making me impatient with roasting and baking. I want to pick and eat and grill over a short, hot fire. I want tiny green shoots and radishes the size of a marble. I want to bite the heads off of baby lettuces. I am voracious for spring.


  1. oh my goodness! just read your glorious words out loud to Les and baby, all cozy in bed. can't think of a better backdrop for your poetry. we can taste your words and savor each sentence. merci beaucoup for giving us a glimpse into a chef's brain and for delighting us with a weekly dose of posey prose. xoxo les and lex

  2. No short ribs in the house but a chuck roast braising in red wine, but mostly chicken broth (no beef broth in the house), chopped onion, carrot and celery, bay leave and thyme, will do...because I want what was aroused in me by your sharing of what we need in winter. I have two parsnips, a sweet potatoe, two white potatoes and the desire not to leave to get more. Just stay. And, eventually revel in the results.