Words and Interviews by
What Chefs Know... About Winter
Adding bright flavors to cold weather cooking
Ah heat! It’s burning in the back of our mind all the time these days. How to get it, conserve it, make it last—and most of all how to fire up the furnace of our bodies to generate as much of it as we can. Here in the hinterlands, where ice and snow love to linger, we need fuel in our bellies as well as sometimes in our generators to weather Mother Nature’s crueler months. Those of us who have passed a few winters in these parts (and even longer springs) know that fighting the urge to slow down, settle in, and serve up some meat and potatoes is futile, and that winter serves a valuable purpose. It is a time to rest and take stock before another growing season begins. As John Steinbeck wrote in Travels with Charley, “What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness?”
Most of the food we eat in Maine hearkens back to traditional cuisine of other northerners. The only problem with that is the heavy ingredients and “stewpot” approach to preparation, which can get boring. The Vikings, those supremely busy winter beavers, perfected a boiled meat-and-vegetable stew called skause by leaving a pot of broth boiling on the hearth for days. As the cooked stew was served, new ingredients were tossed in and the stock bubbled away day after day becoming more flavorful and concentrated with every addition. In Iceland, they rely on fermentation. During porrablót, a midwinter festival, they serve fermented shark, hákarl, accompanied with shots of akvavit, which goes a long way to explaining why it is the national dish. Today, blessed as we are with an international transportation system, our diet is far less limited, but we still face some of the same challenges as our ancestors when it comes to adding sizzle to cupboard chow. So how do we go about making winter’s bounty not just comforting, but memorable? We went to the pros to find out.
“Finnan haddie, smoked haddock, is our go-to dish when the weather gets colder. It’s a common dish in the UK and Scandinavia—countries that both understand long, dark winters— and, like a lot of hearty food, it used to be considered poor people’s food. As fish has grown more expensive and people’s palates more diverse, Finnan haddie has become more of a special treat for everyone. At Ironbound, we prepare it as a Sheperd’s Pie made with smoked haddock from Richard Penfold at Stonington Seafood. It’s important to us to source as much of our food locally as we can, even in the off seasons. This haddock has the right balance of smoke; the flesh is really deep and its texture is flakey, yet substantial, which is a must. We prepare the dish by scalding some cream and milk on the stovetop, and then we put a chunk of the fish flesh-side down into the pan for 7-8 minutes, until the milk is infused with the smoky flavor. We use some of that liquid as the basis for the dish, and we use the leftover infused milk in the mashed potatoes. The result is a Finnan haddie with a rich but subtle smokiness. It’s earthy and warm. Some of our guests order it every time they come in because it makes them happy and reminds them of their childhoods...something any good comfort food should do.”
Leslie Harlow, co-owner, chef, and manager, Ironbound, Hancock Village
“A trick we use at all three of our restaurants is using cold-smoked butter. In the winter, it’s perfect for finishing dishes, using in pasta and cracker dough; it’s an easy way to add depth during cooking. The smoked flavor really supports heartier and spicier fare that we enjoy when it’s cold. The best way to approach making smoked butter in a home kitchen is to set a few sticks of butter in a bowl, nested in a bowl filled with ice. Place this bowl in the back-left corner of the oven (top rack). Make certain the oven is off. Place a few wood chips in a pan and place on a medium high burner. Once the chips start smoking, transfer the pan to the front-right corner of the oven (bottom rack). As the smoke dissipates, just repeat the lighting process to generate more smoke and smoky flavor. The idea here is to keep the oven smoky without melting the butter. You can also use cold-smoked butter to baste meats to add depth and a richer taste. Great for comfort food.”
Mike Wiley—Hugo’s, Eventide Oyster Co., The Honey Paw, Portland
“Part of eating in the winter is eating more heartily, so for those of us who want to eat seasonally, it’s good to just embrace it and not wish for anything else. I use a lot of citrus, like lemon: the zest, peel, and juice, as well as fresh herbs like parsley, cilantro and basil, to brighten the flavor. I’ll often use orange peel when I braise meats and then add some acid at the end to bring it up. And I’m definitely doing more things with curries and Middle Eastern foods where I add citrus. I use a ton of herbs in my cooking, too, all year-round. Nowadays you can buy fresh herbs in most markets, or grow some indoors on a sunny windowsill. I use a lot of fresh rosemary and thyme in the winter. Our farm on the island, Turner Farm, has a terrific winter CSA, and we grow a lot of beautiful winter greens and send them down to markets in Portland. Another good way to brighten up winter soups and stews is to use a gremolata [a chopped mixture of parsley/herbs, garlic, lemon zest, sometimes anchovy] and stir it in towards the end of cooking.”
Amanda Hallowell, Nebo Lodge, North Haven
“I do two things to lighten up heavier dishes: One is to just make sure to pair it with something that is acidic, like a pickled side or condiment. Two is to add a last layer of something fresh to finish cooking or in the presentation. With braised meats, I’ll add a gremolota. If we are serving a heavy soup, like parsnip soup, I’ll add a little extra fresh olive oil to drizzle on top. In winter, I’m huge on citrus. We serve oatmeal every day in the cafe, and the best way to add flavor to a base breakfast grain is to focus on diverse, fresh toppings. We make our own spiced sunflower seeds by roasting them with Urfa biber pepper, brown sugar, egg white and salt. They are crunchy, sweet, with a little spice that’s more sun-dried. Really great topping with stewed apple or, in winter when it’s peak season for citrus, you can peel and cut a grapefruit into chunks and sprinkle them with sugar and do a quick brulée. Use that as a topping on your oatmeal or grits, or whatever, and sprinkle with the sunflower seeds, delicious.”
Melissa Coriarty, Verbena Café, South Portland
“At A1 Diner, we use international flavors to spice things up. I’m making a great Sicilian-inspired lamb right now with tons of fresh mint. It’s braised on the stove-top and is really good. We also grind our own spices—cumin, cayenne, paprika, coriander, ginger—throughout the year, which adds a level of freshness. In the winter, we make curries and stews that use a ton of these spices. I just made a Sweet Salmon Curry with tamarind that didn’t use any curry powder, so curry can actually be what you want it to be, which makes it more interesting to cook and eat. I also make a lot of vegan soups and stews and baharat, [a blend of spices] which is from the Middle East. We’ve become known through the years for being curious and presenting folks with a real diversity of taste experiences. Now people expect it, which is great when you think of what people think of when they think of diner food. We have definitely taken it out of the box."
Michael Giberson, A1 Diner, Gardiner
“I take a warm weather, tropical approach to traditional winter meals. I utilize more Asian or Caribbean seasoning that is both sweet and a little spicy. Caribbean Jerk seasoning is great on roasted chicken, or I’ll do a pot roast with a Thai curry twist using lemon, coconut, and chile pepper. One go-to favorite in winter is braised short rib, bottom round, or brisket made in the traditional style, with a red-tomato, brown gravy. The flavor here is in the layering of aromatics. I use pepper, marjoram, and thyme, basil, bay leaf, nutmeg, salt, pepper, garlic, celery salt, and red wine in the gravy. It’s a savory and full-flavored but not too spicy. I put it over noodles or spaetzle. The thing I like about this dish is that I can make a big batch of sauce and freeze it. The sauce is delicious poured over other dishes, and I’ll get three other meals out of it, usually. I also make other gravies and soups in the summer and fall that I’ll freeze for get-togethers and meal-making in winter. So - if you invite me to a potluck in January, you might get lucky!”
John Strain, Migis Lodge, South Casco
Genevieve Morgan is a Maine-based writer and editor and host of the Spectrum Cable TV show, “The Writer’s Zone." She is also an author, most recently of The Kinfolk (Islandport Press/2016), book three of The Five Stones Trilogy.