Surviving winter’s end
I am officially sick of winter. Living in a place that has changing seasons is actually something I prize. That even includes winter. True, I don’t get quite as excited as I did when I was a child about the first snowfall of the season. But I enjoy its beauty, as well as the plethora of birds at the feeders.
I’m still enjoying the birds, as well as the grey and red squirrels who wage never-ending war against each other, and our resident hawk who clearly regards the feeders as a kind of avian version of fish in a barrel.
But enough already! As I write this, the 10-day forecast is saying that only two days will see temperatures above freezing – and even then, only in the mid-30s. It’s been too cold to start collecting sap from our sugar maples to turn into syrup, something we’ve usually at least begun by this time of year. (Sap flows best when the nights are below freezing and days – especially sunny ones – are above.)
So, even as I pour over seed catalogues, endlessly fantasizing about perfect vegetable and flower gardens, undaunted by the fact that I’ve never actually managed to create them, I’m still making cold weather comfort food. My mind may be fixated on spring greens, baby radishes and slender scallions, but I’m still craving food that warms the rest of me.
I’ve been making Switzerland cheese toast my entire adult life. But I tasted it even before then, in Switzerland itself. It was listed simply as cheese toast on the menu of the outdoor café with views of the Matterhorn I’d gone to with my college choir. It was love at first bite, essentially the same ingredients and flavors as a classic Swiss cheese fondue, but reconfigured as a topping for bread, then broiled until lightly browned. A couple years later, I found a recipe for it in one of my very first (and still favorite) cookbooks, Cooking with Herbs and Spices, by the legendary Craig Claiborne. I’ve changed the recipe somewhat, primarily by adding a greater proportion of Swiss Gruyére cheese.
While I still make the cheese mixture mostly as a bread topping, over the years I’ve discovered that it’s very versatile and used it in a number of different guises, for which see below. Having a jar of it in the refrigerator makes for a quick and easy midweek meal, paired with soup or in warmer weather, a salad.
Switzerland cheese toast
- 1/4 c. unsalted butter
- 3 T. flour
- 1 c. warm milk
- 1/3 c. dry white wine or dry vermouth
- 1 tsp. minced garlic
- 2 beaten eggs
- 2 c. grated natural (not processed) Gruyére Swiss cheese
- Salt to taste (depending on the cheese’s saltiness, you may not need any)
- Freshly ground pepper and freshly ground nutmeg to taste
Melt the butter in a heavy saucepan over medium heat and whisk in the flour. Cook for a couple minutes, then stir in the milk, whisking constantly. Raise the heat and continue whisking until it simmers. Stir in the wine and whisk until the mixture is thickened and smooth. Remove from the heat and cool to room temperature.
Stir in the remaining ingredients and mix until thoroughly combined. May be used immediately, or refrigerated for several days.
To serve: Preheat the broiler. Cut a baguette in half lengthwise or use slices of artisanal-type bread. Spread with the cheese mixture. Broil until the filling is lightly browned and set.
- Add 1-2 tablespoons minced herbs – parsley, chives, rosemary, etc. either singly or in combination, stirred into the cheese mixture or sprinkled on top after broiling
- Add about 1/2 cup crumbled crisp bacon or crabmeat
- Use as a filling for cooked artichoke bottoms or mushrooms caps. Use either regular mushroom caps, or use a whole portobello and cut into wedges like a pizza.
- Stuffed roast peppers: Preheat oven to 400 F. Wash peppers and cut them along the indentations into 3–4 pieces. Place skin side up on a baking sheet that has been lined with parchment paper and rubbed or sprayed with olive oil. Roast until cooked through, 15–30 minutes. Immediately turn the peppers over, skin side down. Cool, then, if need be, trim off any edges that are too brown with kitchen scissors. Fill with the cheese mixture. Depending on the size of the pepper pieces, you will probably use about 2 tablespoons mixture per piece. Broil as above. Serve at room temperature.
The scents of orange and fennel may seem more suited to France’s Provence than the frigid Midwest. But when the Mistral’s wintery winds howl through that region famous for its summer sun and heat, locals are just as desirous of warming dishes to counteract the cold.
Lamb is less popular here, but, properly prepared, its delicate gaminess is a taste worth acquiring. And although the amount of lamb raised locally is limited because the demand is not as large, virtually all lamb sold in America is not produced on factory farms and is grass-fed.
If you’re not a lamb fan, fresh (not smoked) pork shanks are also delicious prepared this way. Shanks of either may appear too large for a single serving, but the amount of meat relative to bone is modest.
Orange fennel braised lamb shanks
- 4 lamb shanks
- Freshly ground pepper to taste
- 2-4 T. extra-virgin olive oil
- 12 cloves garlic, cut in half
- 2 large fennel bulbs (sometimes called anise)
- 4 large oranges, peel removed with a vegetable peeler, flesh reserved for another use
- 2 tsp. lightly crushed fennel seeds
- 1/4 c. Worcestershire sauce
- 1 c. dry white wine, dry red wine or dry vermouth
- 2–4 c. stock – lamb, chicken, beef or vegetable
Sprinkle the shanks generously with salt (1–2 teaspoons per shank, depending on size) and let stand about 2 hours to bring to room temperature. Alternatively, salt the shanks 1-2 days ahead, cover loosely and refrigerate. Remove from the refrigerator and let stand about 2 hours to bring to room temperature.
Preheat the oven to 300 F. Tie the shanks with one or two pieces of kitchen twine to keep the meat from separating from the bone. Sprinkle with pepper. In a heavy pan large enough to hold the shanks in one layer, heat the oil over medium high heat. Add the shanks and brown well on all sides. As they are browned, remove the shanks to a platter. Pour the fat from the pan and return to the heat.
Cut stalks from the fennel bulbs. Chop and reserve some of the feathery fronds for garnish. Cut the bulbs in half, remove the core and slice the fennel into half inch slices. There should be 2–3 cups.
Add the fennel, garlic and orange peel to the pan and stir to coat with the drippings left in the pan. Add the fennel seeds, the Worcestershire sauce, wine and 2 cups of the stock. Put the shanks back in the pan and add additional stock if necessary to bring the liquid halfway up the sides of the shanks.
Bring the liquid to a boil, then cover the pan tightly and place in the oven. Braise the shanks for 2–3 hours or more, depending on the size of the shanks, until the meat is fork tender and falling off the bone.
Remove the shanks to a warm platter and cover loosely. Remove the orange peel from the broth and discard. Let the broth stand for a few minutes and then remove as much fat as possible from the top. This can also be done a day ahead, the liquid chilled and the fat removed.
Check the broth for seasoning. Serve the shanks in deep plates with the broth and vegetables, sprinkled with the fennel fronds. Serves 4.
Contact Julianne Glatz at email@example.com.