When the weather’s cold and the sun sets mid-afternoon, Eli Jameson finds brightness in the kitchen
It has always amazed me that when T.S. Eliot wrote the line, ‘April is the cruelest month’, he wasn’t talking about the onset of winter. Of course, this is hardly surprising given that he lived in the northern hemisphere. But for myself, April, with all its attendant rituals – the changing of the clocks, the airing of the jumpers – has always been a grim affair.
Somehow, it’s hard to be cheery when the sky turns black at what always feels like four o’clock.
To cope with this seasonal black dog, I’ve tended to take refuge in good food and cooking: after all, much better to stick a roast in the oven than your head in one. Not only does keeping the cooker on full-bore help heat at least one end of my drafty circa-1890s terrace house, but it also provides something in the neighbourhood of an acceptable substitute to that favourite summer pastime – namely, standing in front of the barbeque searing off ribeyes and drinking shiraz at 8:30pm, when it’s still bright and sunny.
Another advantage is that winter comfort food (for lack of a better, and less hackneyed, phrase) can be as simple or as complicated as one likes. For the home chef with a busy work schedule who still likes to muck about in the kitchen a few nights a week, this is a great advantage: if I’ve knocked off a bit early and am home by six or seven, then I might happily bread and fry some eggplants, knock up a red sauce, grate a few cheeses, and boil some spaghetti (perhaps even making the noodles myself, if the mood strikes) to wind up with a ridiculously huge platter of eggplant parmagiana that will keep me in lunches through the week. (Fill a good bread roll with a few rounds of the leftovers, wrap in foil and bake until gooey). Otherwise, tossing a tray of veggies in the oven to roast for an hour or so while pottering around the house tidying or simply watching the 7:30 Report over a quiet drink pays a myriad of dividends. Out of a concession to age and arteries, I don’t do this very often, but lately I’ve taken to tossing the results of this together with some pasta, cream, and good freshly-grated cheese (see recipe).
Another old standby for when people come by the house is a lamb-and-pasta dish I picked up when I lived in New York (and yes, I realize that complaining about a Sydney winter after spending one particularly bleak December-through-February living next to the East River does show a lack of perspective, but bear with me). This involves getting some lamb steaks, flattening them out, rolling and tying and them up into little parcels with mint, rosemary, and cheese.
I then brown the packets, set them aside, and make a rich red sauce in the same pan – deglazing, of course, with some hearty red wine. That done (and here’s the beauty: all this fiddly work can be done in the afternoon), I boil up some orichiette pasta, and serve it in bowls with some of the sauce and a couple of lamb rolls. If you’re out to impress, cut the lamb on a bias and arrange artfully on top of the pasta.
Whether simple or complicated, there is something restorative about the whole cooking process that shuts off the white noise of the previous twelve hours and makes for a welcome distraction from a bout of winter blues. As American novelist Nora Ephron once put it, ‘what I love about cooking is that after a hard day, there is something comforting about the fact that if you melt butter and add flour and then hot stock, it will get thick! It’s a sure thing! It’s a sure thing in a world where nothing is sure; it has a mathematical certainty in a world where those of us who long for some kind of certainty are forced to settle for crossword puzzles.’
WINTER-WARMING BEAN SOUP
Adapted from Madhur Jaffrey’s World Vegetarian
This a great winter soup that’s not too complicated for a weeknight and packs a spectacular payoff. Plus, with the exception of the optional truffle oil, it costs virtually pennies a bowl to make. My family eats vats of this over winter.
• Approx. 250g Great Northern beans, soaked overnight
• 2 litres vegetable stock
• 2-3 peeled garlic cloves
• Dried mint, oregano and/or other dried herbs
• Olive oil
• 3-4 diced onions
• 2 starchy potatoes, peeled and diced
• Leaves of one silverbeet or one head rocket, thinly shredded
• Fresh parsley
• Salt and pepper
• Good extra-virgin olive oil (or, for something really special, truffle oil)
1. In a biggish, heavy-bottomed pot, bring the stock and the beans to the boil. Skim off the froth that comes to the surface, and add the garlic and dried herbs. Give it a good stir and simmer, loosely covered, for up to an hour or until the beans are tender. At this point, crush the garlic cloves against the side of the pan.
2. In a second, bigger pot, bring some olive oil up to a medium-high heat and add the onions and potatoes, stirring so that nothing sticks and everything picks up a bit of colour (about five minutes), with a shot of salt and pepper. Add the silverbeet or rocket, stir until just wilted, and pour the other pot with the beans over the whole affair. Bring it all to a boil, then simmer and stir occasionally for about half an hour.
3. Just before serving, toast some thick slices of good crusty country bread and set aside. Using a wooden spoon, mash some of the potatoes and beans against the side of the pot – this nicely thickens the broth. Check seasoning and ladle into bowls, and drizzle a little good extra-virgin olive or truffle oil over each dish. Serve with toasted bread.
Serves: an army.
ROAST VEGETABLE PASTA
Even though it takes a little while to roast the veggies, the actual work time involved in this pasta is virtually nil. And all the cream and cheese makes the healthy bits of the dish much more palatable.
• 250g dried pasta, such as fettucini, papardelle, or rigatoni
• An assortment of baby eggplants, fennel bulbs, zucchini, onions, et cetera – whatever looks good at the market that day, roughly chopped
• 200ml whipping cream
• 1 cup (or more) freshly-grated grana padano cheese
• Fresh parsley, for garnish
• Olive oil
1. Place the chopped vegetables in a roasting tray with a good glug of olive oil, salt, and pepper. Toss the lot around to coat, and place in a reasonably hot pre-heated oven. Meanwhile, place a pot of salted water on the stove to boil.
2. After about 45 minutes or so, check the vegetables – when they are good and soft and roasted, throw the pasta in the water.
3. Warm some cream in a wide saucepan, bringing just to the boil. When the pasta is a few minutes away from being al dente, remove the vegetables from the oven and toss with the cream. Add a good handful of the cheese.
4. Drain the pasta, and toss with the cream, vegetables, and cheese. Serve in warmed pasta bowls and sprinkle on some more cheese and fresh parsley.