Eating and cooking in WINTER

Eating and cooking in Winter - Embers on the hearth

With the real cold weather looming over, it’s a good idea to stock up and make sure you have some staples to help you make the most of cold-weather cooking.

In winter you never know if a random spell of extremely cold weather might keep you indoors for longer than anticipated!

Traditional holiday foods

If, like me, you live in the Northern hemisphere, winter means holiday season: Hanukkah, Yule, Christmas, New Year’s, the Lunar New Year, Valentine’s, and carnival/Mardi gras/Shrove Tuesday all fall between December and March (and probably a few more that I’m either forgetting or I haven’t even heard about).

No matter where you’re from, what religion you are, or what your cultural background is; there is a celebration (or a few) that you will probably take part in during the winter months. And they all involve food, because what better way is there to celebrate and spend special times with others than by sharing food?

My favourites come from a variety of different places, but they are heavy with European influence (because that’s where I’ve spent most of my life!). Nuts, mince pies, turron, chocolate cookies, fudge, gingerbread biscuits, peperkakker, marzipan, chestnuts, candy canes, and stollen all feature in my winter treats list!

When it comes to drinks my favourite has to be hot chocolate, especially with some orange syrup. But I will never say no to a warm glass of mulled wine. And one drink that I’ve been meaning to try for a while, but never have, is eggnog!

During the Lunar New Year, you can be sure I will be treating myself to a box of red bean paste cakes.

Basic ingredients

I will never stop talking about my list of 10 basic ingredients to always have around. They are easy to get pretty much anywhere food is sold, and affordable to buy. And having them around will open up your cooking possibilities! In winter, like year-round, these are staples.

If you haven’t experimented with alternative flours, winter a great time to try them out as the nutty flavours of most of them are great for traditional holiday foods.

Winter herbs and spices

I am a big fan of having a well-stocked herb and spice collection. They allow us to keep using the same basic ingredients but completely change the flavours in seconds and with ease.

For the cold months, perhaps the most obvious choice between herbs and spices, are spices, especially the strong flavours of warming spices.

  • allspice: it looks like peppercorn, but tastes completely different, a bit like Chinese 5-spice or mixed spice (hence the name). It is mostly used in Central and Southern American cooking.
  • aniseed: not to be confused with star anise. It does have a similar liquorice flavour, but sweeter.
  • black pepper: originally from India, but now extremely popular in most European cuisines. They are spicy, but in a different way than chillies. It’s best to grind right before using as the essential oils are extremely delicate.
  • cardamom: it can be used in savoury and sweet cooking, and goes particularly well with citrus fruits.
  • cinnamon: cinnamon can be used in savoury cooking too, it goes especially well with red meats and birds.
  • cloves: another one that can be used in sweet and savoury cooking. It’s great for pork and brassicas (the cabbage family of vegetables).
  • coriander seed: the seed of coriander/cilantro. It tastes somewhat lemony and it’s very common in Indian and Latin American cuisines.
  • cumin: somewhat spicy and earthy, cumin is popular in Spanish, Latin American, Middle Eastern, and Chinese cuisines.
  • ginger: it can be spicy and add freshness is you use the actual root, but if you use dried ginger it will be quite sweet. For baking, you want to use dried ginger only.
  • nutmeg: nutmeg is really strong, so use only a little bit! It goes well with all sorts of meats and root vegetables (try adding some to your potato mash) and squashes. You can also use it in sweet baking.
  • paprika: paprika can be sweet (made from sweet peppers), hot (made from spicy peppers), or smoked (made from sweet smoked peppers). Very common in Central Europe, the Iberian Peninsula, and Latin America.
  • star anise: it has a somewhat savoury liquorice flavour. Great for dark meats and stews that use red wine.

Spice mixes are a good way to get some winter flavours, without a lot of work:

  • 5-spice powder: a Chinese mix of star anise, Sichuan pepper, cloves, fennel seed, and Chinese cinnamon. Really good for pork, birds, and seafood. You can also use it for baking. The actual spices and amounts can change depending on the brand.
  • mixed spice: a British mix of cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg. Mostly used in baking.
  • pumpkin pie spice: an American mix of cinnamon (the main ingredient), ginger, cloves, nutmeg, and allspice. Traditionally used for pumpkin pie, but now it’s everywhere!
  • speculasskruiden: a Dutch/German mix of cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ginger, white pepper, and cardamom. This spice mix is used to make a traditional spiced biscuit, but it will work in baking in general.

Those who like some kick in their food, should also add some kind of chilli to the mix. Smoked chilli powders are especially good to bring out winter flavours.

Four herbs that can still be found in winter are:

  • mint: a traditional flavour of Christmas, but you can use it all winter long! Add it to dishes that need some freshness, in sweet baking, and in drinks.
  • rosemary: works with red meats, in soups and stews, with root vegetables, and in sweet baking (if you’ve never tried them, rosemary shortbreads are delicious)
  • thyme: somewhat lemony and earthy, it goes with all sorts of meats and root vegetables.
  • winter savoury: similar to thyme, but a lot harder to come across (a good one to grow yourself). Especially good with red meats.

Winter fruits

Winter might not necessarily have you thinking of fruits. But many of the usually considered staples, thrive in the colder months.

  • apples: available September to March.
  • bananas: available year round.
  • citrus (all varieties): available October to March.
  • cranberries: available October to early January.
  • dates: available October to January.
  • kiwis: available November to January.
  • nuts: picked in autumn, but available in winter.
  • pears: available September to January.
  • persimmons: available October to February.
  • pomegranates: available October to January.
  • quince: available September to January.

And of course: loads of dried fruits! Dried fruits are a fantastic way to enjoy things not in season during winter.

In winter you might not feel like grabbing a piece of fruit as a snack or as dessert, luckily, all fruits available in winter can be enjoyed cooked in pies, compotes, jams, crumbles…

Winter vegetables

Winter usually makes us think of root vegetables, and while they are the star of the winter kitchen, there are also a lot of other options! You would be surprised by the amount of greens that can be harvested during winter mostly in the form of the brassica family, which brings us a variety of cabbages as well as cauliflowers and some broccoli too. Depending on where you live you might also be able to get hold of the Mediterranean cardoon, a treat not to be missed!

  • beets (including greens): available July to January.
  • broccoli: available mostly until November, but some varieties can be found well into March.
  • Brussel sprouts: available October to March.
  • cabbages: available year round, some varieties only available during winter.
  • cardoon: available September to March.
  • carrots: available June to January.
  • cauliflower: available December to April.
  • celery: available July to February.
  • celery root/celeriac: available September to April.
  • chicory (all varieties, including radicchio, endive, and escarole): available year round but sweeter January to March.
  • garlic: available year round.
  • Jerusalem artichokes/sunchokes: available October to March.
  • kale: available September to February.
  • leeks: available September to March.
  • onions: available year round.
  • parsnips: available September to March.
  • potatoes: available year round.
  • radish (including horseradish): available April to January.
  • swedes/rutabagas/yellow turnips: available October to February.
  • sweet potato: available year round, at their best between October to February.
  • turnip (including greens): available October to February.
  • winter squash: available October to March.

One of my favourite things to do in winter is prepare a massive tray of roast vegetables, flavoured with different herbs and spices. They can be eaten straight out of the oven or chilled and kept in the fridge for a few days for easy meals throughout the week. They can be eaten as a side, added to soups and stews to quicken the cooking process, as part of a grain bowl, cold or hot in a winter salad, in a wrap, or if you are like me just pick some every time you open the fridge!

All root vegetables can be chopped in advanced and prepared on the baking tray, except for potatoes that will oxidise and turn brown. To avoid this, keep them covered in water and drain right before roasting. By playing with the sizes all different kinds of vegetables can be roasted at the same time. I prefer to keep them each on their own little corner of the oven tray to maximise their potential. But you can always mix them all up!

If you’re roasting leafy vegetables, it’s always best to cover them in foil so they don’t burn.

Making sauces

Winter is the season of hearty foods with delicious sauces. To make the starting roux of a sauce, flour is a must. You can go traditional and use wheat flour or try any of the other alternatives.

Gravy is probably the king (queen?) of sauces, and while it’s always nice to make it from scratch, having some instant gravy granules around is a great a way to add some extra flavour to some foods when in a rush. If your sauce, stew, or curry is not thick enough a little bit of instant gravy granules will fix that and add some delicious flavour. I personally prefer to have vegetable gravy granules as I find them more versatile, and they can be used for vegetarians (and vegans if you get one without dairy).

Stock cubes are another pantry staple that, in a pinch, can save a dish. Of course, you can always make your own stock. A combination of onion and garlic skins, carrot tops, and celery bottoms (all seasonal vegetables) make delicious stock.

Using grains

Whole grains such as barley, brown rice, wheat and oats are affordable, versatile, and filling. All four can be used in sweet and savoury cooking and bring variety to the more traditional white rice.

Pasta is also a great addition (or make your own pasta, it’s not that hard). It’s quick and easy to cook and will be just as happy with a simple sauce, as in a casserole. When in doubt, spaghetti and penne are two good pasta shapes to keep around, and usually available from discount brands.

Polenta, or coarse cornmeal, is another fantastic addition to the pantry. It cooks in minutes and can take on all sorts of flavours.

Stew and soup ingredients

For those typical cold-weather soups and stews, a variety of canned or dried beans and canned tomatoes are indispensable. I like buying dried beans in bulk (Asian, African, and Latin American stores are a good place to find affordable beans in large bags), cook a batch in my pressure cooker during the weekend and use them throughout the week. Most cooked beans will freeze without issues.

Root vegetables, like potatoes, carrots, beets, parsnips, swedes (rutabaga), celeriac, Jerusalem artichokes, and sweet potatoes, all last for a long time if stored properly and add heartiness to both soups and stews.

It’s also a good idea to keep some sort of acid around (the seasonal citrus fruits or balsamic vinegar are good options), to help lift the flavour of soups, stews, and roasted vegetables. They usually need to be cooked for a long time, and the freshness of an acid is always a welcomed addition.

Coconut milk (the kind that comes in a tin) is another way to add warmth to dishes, especially curries.

Winter baking

Those who enjoy baking should keep around some cocoa powder, baking chocolate, and honey. All three are versatile and add warmth to most bakes, and can be used in drinks too! My favourite drink as a child was called submarino (submarine in Spanish), it involved a bar of baking chocolate melted in almost boiling milk.

Alternative flours are great ingredients to start playing with if you’ve never used it before. The nuttiness they often bring to bakes is especially welcome during the cold weather months. And of course, all sort of dried fruits and nuts. Nothing says winter more than those!

While baked goods are delicious, they are usually not the healthiest. But there are a few tips and tricks to make them a bit better:

  • add fruit and veg: winter fruits can all be cooked and many vegetables are quite sweet, so take advantage of that and add them to your baking. Some fruit and veg can be used as egg replacements too.
  • use less sugar: you can replace some of the sugar with spices or cocoa, or with fruit purees.
  • use less butter: you can replace it with nut or seed butters or with fruit purees.

Winter grilling

If you are a BBQ fan, grilling doesn’t have to stop in winter, but you do have to make some changes!

  • make sure you clean the grill and surrounding area properly before you start cooking. Be on the lookout for ice and make sure you take it out. Leaving ice to melt will create a lot of steam and potentially smoke.
  • plan for longer cooking times. The temperature is lower, so the food will take longer to cook.
  • make sure you are sheltered. If you have a BBQ that can be moved, place it under a roof and at a right angle from the wind.
  • dress for winter! The weather is cold, you need to keep warm. But be careful you don’t wear baggy clothes that could catch fire.

Of course, you can also grill indoors. You can use a grill for the stovetop or a machine you can plug in. In both cases, you’ll need to be careful of generating too much smoke, so turn the extractor on and, if you can, cook near a window. You can also use the broiler in your oven to somewhat recreate grilling indoors.