Have you hit the wall that is winter menu fatigue yet? I admit I have, and no matter how comforting a meat loaf or braised short rib taste on a frigid day, I would gladly trade root vegetable purees and wine-enriched sauces for a single stalk of local asparagus. By February, I crave the lighter, brighter days of spring and summer, yet both warm sunshine and the first tender greens to thrive in it seem a long way off. It becomes sometimes harder and harder to cook when enthusiasm for the products at hand wanes.
This is never more of a challenge for me than during our winter birthday season. The problem? Four birthdays between January and March, four super special menus to devise, one flagging cook. The solution? What gets me jazzed about the special meal I have to make, not to mention all the meals I have to make in between?
A few things. It’s a process.
For any meal I make when entertaining, my process usually starts with dessert. No, not eating dessert. Planning one. For a birthday, I find if I start letting my creative mind go a little wild over cake planning, I’m excited about getting creative with the whole meal in pretty short order.
Once the flame of creativity has been fanned, I move next to picking a protein, something to center the entire meal around, something the person of honor likes. I give this matchmaking a lot of thought, until finally I land on something that feels right.
With that component set, I then decide my vegetables. Rarity is important. What haven’t I used lately? What vegetable haven’t I used at all? Color is important too. What might excite our eyes, therefore exciting our tired palates as well? (After all, it’s not just the cook who gets bored in the winter; diners may have hit their own version of menu fatigue.)
To set this meal apart from any winter Sunday dinner, a birthday meal needs a first course; what will that be? A soup? Soup always does yeoman’s work ushering in a multi-course menu. But have we overdosed on soup lately? If so, what would be different but also transmit the feeling of “occasion” as well as whet the appetite for the courses to follow?
This is not simply an idea process. It’s part manual – I make notes, I fill a notebook with my ideas, I pore over menu notebooks I have filled in years past – and visual as well – I look at pictures in cookbooks I take out of the library, I go back to old cookbook stalwarts, I close my eyes and think of meals I have eaten in beloved restaurants.
But so far, none of this creative process is much different than the way I plan a meal for entertaining at any time of the year. Winter celebrations, though, require that I take one extra step and think of how to incorporate my craving for the flavors of the field and sunshine, then another step still to work out how to weave farm fresh and warm weather leanings throughout, ultimately making all the courses progress and work together.
For me, those last two steps happen with fruit.
Dried fruit. Wintered over or preserved late fall fruits. Lifesaving, in season citrus.
Specifically in our case last weekend: prunes, late apples and apple cider, and lots and lots of lemon and orange.
All of the following dishes can be made as part of the same meal. Start with lemon and apples, continue with apples and cider, and prunes and cider vinegar, tie the main course to the first with orange zest.
Remember, though, that any one of these ideas can be side dishes for, or accompaniments to, any week night meal. The starter made in a larger portion would make a one plate lunch or light supper by itself. Think of these as either your next entertaining menu, or as flourishes that add the brightness you crave on any cold and dark night of the winter week.
Lemon-Dressed Seared Scallop Salad
serves 4 as an appetizer course
The secret to a restaurant-quality sear is very dry scallops and a large, hot pan.
- 1/4 cup light-colored oil such as light olive oil, grapeseed oil, or canola oil
- 2 1/2 Tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice
- the grated zest of one lemon
- 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
- 1 tsp. dijon mustard
- pinch of salt
- (2) 1/4-inch thick slices of pancetta
- 8 large sea scallops, dried well between layers of paper towels
- enough arugula or spinach for 4 plates
- 2 scallions, washed and finely chopped
- 1 tart, late fall, wintered over apple
- freshly grated orange zest
Add the first 6 ingredients to a small jar fitted with lid and shake well to combine. The mustard will emulsify the acid and oil to make a well-blended dressing. Chill.
Dice or matchstick the pancetta. Heat a large heavy steel frying pan over medium high heat. Add the pancetta pieces to the hot pan and fry until browned. Remove the pancetta to brown paper or paper towels to drain.
In the same pan over medium high heat, and without wiping out the small amount of rendered pancetta fat, sear the scallops about 2 minutes and no more on each side (less time if the scallops are smallish), and a nice seared crust forms. Remove the cooked scallops to a plate.
Cut the apple in quarters and remove the core. Slice each quarter into 4-6 thin slices (depending on the size of the apple, you may only need to use half or three-fourths); reserve the remaining amount for another use). Divide the arugula between 4 small salad plates. Arrange apple slices on top. Scatter the salad with pancetta pieces and sliced scallion, as desired. Spoon a teaspoon of dressing over each plate of greens, then top with 2 scallops. Grate a little orange zest over the top and serve.
Braised Sweet and Sour Red Cabbage with Apples
- canola or grapeseed oil for the pan
- 1 tart, late fall, wintered over apple (plus any remaining apple from above salad, if using at the same meal)
- 1 medium yellow onion, chopped
- 1 medium head of red cabbage, cored and hand cut into shreds (1/4- to 3/8-inch thick)
- 1 cup apple cider
- 1/2 cup unfiltered apple cider vinegar
- salt to taste
Coat the bottom of a large Dutch saute pan with 1-2 Tbsp. of oil. Heat over medium heat and add the onion. Stir until onion is softened. Cut apple into cubes and add these to the pan. Stir.
Add cabbage to the pan and stir well to combine. Pour over the top the cider and cider vinegar. Maintain the liquids at a gentle simmer with the pan uncovered for about an hour, or until the cabbage is tender. Season to taste with a pinch or two of salt. Serve with duck, pork, chicken or grilled sausages.
Stewed Prune Sauce for Roasted Meats
These glistening, sticky flavor bombs make a wonderful sauce for roast duck, roast pork loin, or even and every day roast of skin-on chicken breasts. The prunes use the same flavors as the cabbage. In fact, if serving at the same meal, some of the prune-enriched stewing juices can be added at the end of the cabbage cooking to boost the sweet and sour flavors.
- 16 large, plump whole pitted prunes
- 2 cups apple cider
- 1/2 cup unfiltered cider vinegar
- freshly grated orange zest to finish
Place prunes and 1 cup apple cider in a small saucepan. Cover, bring to a boil, and reduce the heat to gently simmer the prunes, cracking the lid a bit to release some steam as they simmer. Gently simmer them until they are softened and plumped, about 30 minutes.
Remove the prunes to a small bowl. Add the remaining cup of cider and the cider vinegar to the liquid in the saucepan. Leaving the pan uncovered, turn the heat to medium high and begin to cook down the sauce until it is slightly thickened and reduced by half.
Note: At this point, put a few spoons full of the reduced liquid into the cabbage to finish its cooking process, if making both for the same meal.
Return the prunes to the liquid and serve spooned over your favorite roasted meat, topped with freshly grated orange zest.
©2011 Jane A. Ward