I was born in late February, not by choice, and I’ve never gotten accustomed to the cold as apparently some do when thrust into this world while snow swirls in the streets and the temps hover in the teens.
Though I can appreciate the beauty of snow-trimmed pine branches and fields brightly blanketed in white, I am not a winter person. I do not ski, either cross-country or on slopes; nor do I take brisk walks in 20-degree weather, or skate on ice in rinks, indoor or out. Were I to have occasion to visit a ski lodge, I would be the lone figure leaning against the stone fireplace, the yellow-orange blaze emanating from the logs lighting my face, holding a brandy snifter of amber-colored cognac swirling to warm it slightly, lifting the aroma upwards.
As of a month or two ago, the Weber grill had been cleaned, covered and lugged down to the basement, and I do find myself looking longingly at the picnic table on the back porch (now wrapped in a heavy plastic tarp and crowned with a half dozen inches of snow), where we enjoyed so many al fresco meals of light fare in warm weather. It is a new season in the country.
So, what to eat during the bracing winter months? My sister, Janet, and I are not crazy for braised meats or stews with the exception of ones made with chicken (such as an exotic Moroccan tajine I cook with dried fruit and chickpeas). The reason for this is that we prefer our meat mooing, or more specifically very rare, which means we concentrate more on steaks and chops when indulging in beef and lamb, and pork is eaten tinged with pink. Duck breast, a favorite in our family, is cooked to a state of rareness that most would find appalling.
Seafood, in general, doesn’t call out to me in winter, though I could eat it daily in multiple guises in summer. Once every couple of years, in the colder months, I will take the time to compile a time-intensive fish stew, a chunky tomato-based mélange of clams, halibut, mussels, shrimp (until Janet became rudely aware of an allergy to the crustacean), calamari, sea scallops and that wonderful rice-shaped pasta, orzo. But, in general, we won’t be seeing fish until spring.
I have turned to soup as the go-to cold weather meal at least once a week. I’ve never understood the combo of soup and salad, primarily because soups are so often based on vegetables; there is no appeal to me to have hot and cold vegetables in one sitting. Soup alone can be wanting, and to make it more filling, I do like to concoct small (perhaps open-faced) sandwiches with unusual ingredients; or set out some crackers with tuna fish salad made with Italian tuna in olive oil, minced red onion, good mayo, chopped French cornichon pickles or a handful of capers; or an interesting cheese or two.
So far this season I have made French onion soup topped with copious amounts of aged Gruyere cheese; gingery Chinese rice porridge (called congee) fortified with chunks of duck or pork and garnished with sliced scallions and chopped cilantro; Italian egg drop soup (known as stracciatelli) topped with a healthy grating of Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino Romano cheese and laced with strips of raw baby spinach that wilts on contact with the hot broth; pureed butternut squash soup topped with grated toasted coconut and sliced almonds; and a hearty, rich mushroom and barley soup made with two types of mushrooms: reconstituted dried porcini and fresh cremini, thickly sliced. This thick, warming soup is literally a meal in a bowl and doesn’t warrant any side sandwiches, though a chunk of crusty bread and some good butter wouldn’t hurt. The best part is that it warms the heart of a February baby like nothing else.
Two Mushroom and Barley Soup
Serves 4 to 6 as a first course
This rich, hearty mushroom soup is fortified with pearl barley. The soup miraculously thickens quite a bit in the last few minutes of cooking time as the barley expands. Add a little broth if you like a thinner soup, but remember that the consistency is traditionally more like porridge.
1 ounce (or about 1/4 - 1/3 cup) dried porcini mushrooms, broken up
8 ounces fresh cremini mushrooms (halved if large), sliced
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large red or yellow onion, finely chopped
2 carrots, peeled and finely chopped
2 celery stalks, finely chopped
3/4 cup pearl barley
8 (or more) cups chicken broth
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Place dried porcini mushrooms, onions, carrots, celery and barley in a large soup pot. Add chicken broth, salt, and pepper and bring to a boil. Immediately reduce heat to a simmer, and cook, covered, for 40 minutes. Meanwhile, sauté the fresh sliced mushrooms in a mixture of the butter and oil over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until they release their liquid and the liquid is absorbed, about 5 minutes. Set aside. When the soup has cooked for 40 minutes, add the sautéed mushrooms and cook, covered, for an additional 5 minutes. Check for seasoning and serve hot.