Jenny McGruther is a food educator and the voice behind the award-winning traditional foods website Nourished Kitchen. She teaches workshops and retreats on traditional foods, fermentation, and food activism. Her work emphasizes back-to-basics, old-world culinary techniques, and simple, traditional home cooking.
Jenny lives with her family in the central mountains of Colorado, where she and her husband created and managed one of Colorado's most progressive farmers' markets. Today she has some advice for the best cooking to beat the last cold days of winter.
Jenny's book, Nourished Kitchen: Farm-to-Table Recipes for the Traditional Foods Lifestyle, will be available in spring 2014 from Ten Speed Press.
She says: "I enjoy re-embracing traditional food pathways and I find a lot of pleasure in the kitchen. I enjoy exploring the connections between how our food is produced, how we prepare it, and how we nourish our families. We have a tendency to look at our food in isolation. We see it just as health food, or just as something to enjoy. But when we embrace a holistic perspective, when we include the source, the preparation, and the nourishing qualities of our food, then they all come together for true nourishment and enjoyment."
Jenny McGruther's 5 Essentials for a Warm and Nourishing Winter Kitchen
1. Make lots of broth.
I believe that what people benefit from most in the wintertime is broth. Broth does enormous things for our immunity, especially in the wintertime when we're inside more often and are more prone to catching colds and flus and other bugs. Broths and homemade stocks are powerful nourishment to get us through these darker days. There's been a lot of research on chicken broth showing that it inhibits something called neutrophil migration, which means it mitigates the symptoms of colds and flus. So there really is some legitimacy to why chicken broth seems to be so helpful when we're feeling sick.
I highly recommend getting in the habit of making broth or stock every week. Broth is such a simple thing to make at home. It's so easy to just fold it into your routine. If you buy it from the grocery store, a quart of organic, free-range chicken stock can set you back $6-7.00 but you can make it at home for a fraction of that. Even better, it's much richer in micronutrients and supportive of systemic wellness in ways that commercial broth isn't.
And it's so easy to do. If you roast a chicken once a week, simply take the leftover carcass and boil it until the bones practically crumble in your fingers and then you have broth for the rest of the week. Another favorite method is to make broth from chicken feet. Granted, it's a little gnarly to be working with chicken feet — they're not exactly the most attractive part of the animal! But chicken feet give you the very best broth possible because they are primarily cartilage and bone and that's what you need to produce a good broth. I also like to enhance broth with ginger, chilis, and star anise so it really has a nice round, warmth to it.
Broths are the most important thing to make in the winter. (They're perhaps less important in the summertime.) Plus they make your kitchen all warm and cozy! There's something beautiful about the scent of broth. People come to my home and they say oh, it smells like butter and broth. That's one of the best compliments I can get!
2. Make lots of ferments.
Fermented food is good all year round for general health and wellness. Fermentation increases the B-vitamins in your food, as well as boosting anti-oxidant capacities, so they're especially great in the wintertime.
Fermentation can seem daunting and scary but a lot of people who are interested in food are already making fermented lemons (also known as salted or preserved lemons.) Fermented lemons are particularly good in winter because they are high in vitamin C which helps to support our immune system. And because they're fermented, they're rich in beneficial bacteria that is also supportive to the immune system, so you have those two strong components coming together. Not to mention, they're in season! I chop them up and sometimes I add garlic and I put them over potatoes or Jerusalem artichokes — they give a nice hit of brightness to otherwise very earthy vegetables.
I also really like kimchi. It's a good ferment for winter because it's such a warming dish and the cabbage is in season. You also typically add ginger, garlic, chills, and radish — all foods which are excellent if you're suffering from a cold or flu or if you have the water blahs. They add such a punch of flavor. It's also great to make it with winter radishes like daikon.
And sauerkraut of course. I have a recipe for hot pink jalapeño sauerkraut that keeps our family going throughout winter. It's make with red cabbage which is actually purple but during the fermentation process the purple bleeds into the white veins and produces this remarkably vivid pink! In the wintertime our plates are full of root vegetables and potatoes, so having that punch of color in a season that is otherwise fairly bleak brings a lot of joy to the table. I love to bring pink sauerkraut out in winter.
3. Make lots of root vegetables.
Not only are root vegetables in season in winter, they're a beautiful example of how the natural rhythm of the seasons work with our health and how we nourish ourselves. It's in winter that we find these starchy vegetables so helpful and beneficial. We need root vegetables because they provide sustenance when we're fighting the cold and struggling to stay warm. Things like potatoes and radishes (which are excellent roasted or blistered and sprinkled with fresh herbs.) These root vegetables coupled with warming spices help to brace us against the looming gloom. And they're beautiful! It's a gift that we have such a wide variety of root vegetables available to us now.
A favorite wintertime recipe is to make Pommes Anna with sweet potatoes. Slice the sweet potatoes super thin with a mandoline and layer them with spiced ghee (or clarified butter) and bake until the sweet potatoes are soft and caramelized on the edges. There're wonderful sweet spices in the ghee like ginger, clove, and cardamom and they combine with the sweet potatoes to create a magnificent, delicious, comforting dish. The spiced ghee also has turmeric which provides an interesting, comforting flavor. It's my favorite way to prepare sweet potatoes — I usually serve them with a roast chicken.
Another root to explore is Jerusalem artichokes. Peel them and then sprinkle with olive oil or lard (I prefer lard in the wintertime) and roast them in the oven with elephant or regular garlic until they're soft. Then mix in some chopped preserved lemon to balance the earthiness.
4. Embrace lard!
I have a few reasons for this. I know that many people still consider lard to be the bad boy of fat. At the same time, it's really interesting to see how we are beginning to embrace butter again — last year, butter consumption in the US was the highest it's ever been in 40 years. So we're starting to get back on board with healthy fats in our diet. And while we look to cooking fats that are from long distant places like coconut and olive oil (except in California, where you're fortunate to have it locally) lard can be found very close to home. It's a local product.
Another reason why I prefer lard, especially in the winter, is that lard from pasture-raised pigs has one of the highest concentrations of vitamin D available to us outside of supplementation and Americans are often facing insufficient levels of vitamin D. When pigs are raised outdoors on pasture underneath the sun, they manufacture vitamin D in their skin and fat and so when you render the fat into lard, it is very rich in vitamin D. Also, we celebrate olive oil for its monounsaturated fat, but the dominant fat in lard is also monounsaturated. It's the same kind of fat you find in olive oil, avocados. It's a beautiful fat!
Lard lends a lovely, luxuriant flavor to your foods. It's excellent with roasted vegetables or to caramelize onions. Since we're spending less time outside in the sun in the winter, it's good to get some vitamin D from it. It's also very satisfying.
Lard is very mild and you can use it for savory as well as sweet purposes. One way that I like to use it is to toast almonds. Melt the lard in a skillet and then toss in some blanched almonds and rosemary. The lard will toast the almonds and crisp up the rosemary. Put into a bowl and sprinkle with sea salt. Amazing!
5. Embrace liver!
I really like liver in the wintertime. It's a really nutrient-dense food — super high in nutrients, especially B vitamins. I know that a lot of people find liver or any organ meat overwhelming because they're not used to them. We're kind of spoiled that way. Prior to the mid-20th century, we really didn't have the luxury of wasting food like we do today by only eating muscle meats. Muscle meats are delicious and they definitely have their place on the table but we ignore the wide variety of flavors and nutrition that organ meets and offal can bring. We dishonor the animal by not using the whole beast, the bones for broth, the fat for lard, the offal.
Learning to embrace liver is a whole new challenge for some cooks. Liver has a strong, mineral-like flavor and if it's cooked improperly, the texture can be off. One of my favorite ways to introduce liver to people who may be unaccustomed to it begins by freezing the liver and then grating it. You crisp up some bacon in lard and layer it with the grated liver over parboiled, peeled and cubed potatoes. Then you roast the whole thing. You've got lard, you've got bacon, and you've got the liver and potatoes all mixed together. It's really delicious and a nice opportunity to introduce people to this delicious meat.
There's also dishes like liver and caramelized onions, or pate on a slice of sourdough bread. Add a big salad and you've got a really nice lunch!
On fermentation crocks: Start off with using the insert to your slow cooker or mason jars. See if you like the process first. If you do, then invest in a nice crock.
On citrus: One thing I absolutely love about citrus in winter, especially lemons, is that we're in this cold, dark, gray time and then oranges and lemons and grapefruit come into season — what a gift of nature! Like little balls of sunshine.
On rendering lard: I render my lard at home. It's pretty easy to do. Rendering basically means you're purifying the fat because the lard that you get from your local rancher, butcher or farmer is usually straight from the pig, so it may have bits of meat or sinew or other 'impurities.' When you melt it, you can isolate the pure fat from the extra bits which you want to avoid because they will cause spoilage over time. When you properly render fat, it will stay good for several months.
It's a lot like clarifying butter. You melt it down to easily isolate the fat and remove the solids. The easiest way to do that is to grate or finely mince it and then put it in a pot over very low heat. And add about a cup or 1/2 cup of water to help keep the lard from burning (it will evaporate over the course of rendering) and cook it low and slow for several hours.
What's your favorite piece of equipment? I use my cast iron skillet the most. I could probably get rid of everything else in my kitchen if I had a good knife and a cast iron skillet. It's so beautifully seasoned and I use it everyday, if not multiple times a day. The other thing that I really enjoy is my fermentation pot. It's a Polish stoneware pot and it holds several gallons of pickles or sauerkraut or turnips or whatever I'm working on. I like it because it's beautiful.
What's for dinner tonight: We're making a roast chicken over Jerusalem artichokes. I roast a chicken once a week, usually on Tuesday or Wednesday so I have the bones to make broth to use for the rest of the week. We'll also have some sauerkraut (we've got a bunch of sauerkraut that we need to get through) as well as beet kvass.
Thank you, Jenny!
Recipes from Nourished Kitchen that Jenny mentioned in this post:
Visit Jenny's website Nourished Kitchen and look for her book. You can also find Nourished Kitchen on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
(Image credits: Nourished Kitchen; Dana Velden; Emily Han; Anjali Prasertong; Emily Ho; Emily Ho)