Maybe you’re the kind of person who spends the first month or two or (bless you) three months of the New Year amped-up, working those resolutions. Or, maybe you find yourself in the same proverbial boat I find myself in just after the holidays—the doldrums or just plain bored. If that’s you, don’t get down on yourself. It’s natural! Plenty of us have been running our little tails off for the past couple months, buying presents, cooking, traveling and being sunny and friendly all the while. So it’s totally natural to want to be a bit reclusive and binge on past episodes of Downton Abbey or Battlestar Galactica once things return to normal. For me, nothing works better when it comes to getting over the funk than kicking the old routine of yesteryear to the curb. That's doubly true when it comes to cooking. My surefire cure for post New Year's blues includes stocking my fridge full of new and exciting produce and eating and cooking differently than I have for the past few months.
In other words, don’t just embrace change, make it your motto! Aiming to make different, flavorful food excites our taste buds and rekindles a sense of adventure oft-lost on "all-knowing cooks." What’s best about this delicious approach is it need not be full-fat or calorie laden. Shifting gears away from rich, buttery foods to full-flavored dishes with less carbs and fat is easy to do when you’re working with ingredients that are different from your norm.
So Here's a Few Suggestions to Get You Started
Unlike most edible grains, quinoa is not a cereal but a “chenopod” that’s closely related to spinach and a number of other leafy vegetables. It’s packed with protein and is gluten free, making it a great choice for a carb-like side that’s not a carb. Once you cook it, you can season it basically anyway you like, doing it like Spanish Rice, tossing in green onions and black pepper or bits of garlic laden kale (my personal favorite).
Wild Winter Rice in Soup, as a Side with Dried Cherries, Figs, Nuts or Anything You Want to Try. I'm all for making rice in chicken or vegetable broth and loading in the extras. When I want to be extra creative with my additions, I cook the rice then take a cup full and add various ingredients and seasonings until I've got it the way I want it, then I season the whole pot.
Make Other Grains—Whole Rye, Whole-Grain Barley (not pearled), Amaranth and Millet are grains you’ve most definitely seen chefs making the most of, unless you’ve had your head under a rock. There’s tons of recipes out there now so give these grains a whirl! I’ve found Whole-Grain Barley which is said to help reduce cholesterol makes a mean ginger, leek and chicken soup. Sorry, I don’t have a recipe, just threw it in the pot with leftover bits of roasted chicken and voila!
Leeks and Onions, Garlic and Shallot
Okay, most of us know our onion and garlic on a fairly intimate level but when’s the last time you cooked with shallot? Have a great fish recipe you could unearth for that? How about a nice Branzino or Petrale Sole? Don’t forget onions in all their variety? How about beautiful little cipollini onions caramelized in balsamic? Serve these, sweet and sour goodies along with a nice rib eye or skirt steak, some lemony string beans and who’s going to have anything to complain about—huh?
Sunchokes or Jerusalem Artichokes
Same root vegetable, different name and full of potassium and good bacteria too, this is one veg you should make the most of. Serve it shaved atop a salad, add to your beef stew, or serve Sunchokes done julienne or just about any way you’d do a potato or a turnip. When it comes to flavor, think slightly nutty, slightly earthy and clean. I like mine roasted. Done that way, these Sunchokes have a really nice, dense texture that works well alongside other root veggies like carrots, beets, turnips and the like. Slice into thick slices and brush with olive oil then toss with arugula and goat cheese for a zingy side salad. Maybe someone can try making a healthier French fry with these. They’d probably have to be sliced and roasted first, then flash fried after that.
Ever do the rabe? Tried it and find it’s a bit too bitter? I encourage you to try them again. This time, wash them, peel off the tougher bits (if necessary) and rub on a bit of salt, then flash blanch* your broccoli rabe, then sauté with a hefty amount of garlic and season however you like. When done right, this wonderfully bitter vegetable packs some real flavor explosion! Work with the bitterness by pairing this vegetable with savory, umami-rich, sour and spicy food.
Crunchy, sweet, clean and acidic, fennel is a great palate cleanser that’s plenty healthy too. Don’t like fennel? Well how long has it been since you’ve tried it? I went from not liking it, to craving it and have seen my friends to the same and I swear there’s something to it when you’ve got a cold. Add to salads, caramelize it, sauté it with olive oil and onions, roast it, add it to your roast chicken recipe, this refreshing vegetable is strangely invigorating. Sneak it onto the plate and see what your eaters have to say.
Chances are some of you went fig-wild over the holidays, others haven’t seen a fig in years. Fresh, firm figs take just 20 minutes to cook in the oven (halved at 350). Go savory with these guys and serve them sliced them atop a burger for a bit of added sweetness and dimension or wrap them in bacon or prosciutto. These crowd-pleasers dress up well with a dab of mascarpone or drizzled with honey and crushed bits of pistachio. Great in ice cream, with brandy and cooked bananas or in coulis, this rich, supple fruit is totally exotic and downhome at the same time. Serve ripe and uncooked with blue cheese or parmesan and balsamic as a nice way to open or end a meal.
Well I at least some of my suggestions got you excited! Got some tasty winter favorites? Send them my way!
Here's to Great Eating and Cooking and a most fruitful and delicious 2014!