I woke to a chill in the air. It’s dark at 6am and has been since 6:30 the previous night. Days are shorter now and will become shorter still as the next few weeks tick by. Smoke billows from chimneys as furnaces and fireplaces are once again cranked up. Flocks of birds are beginning their sojourn south and boats are being pulled from the water. I reluctantly drag rakes from the outside shed knowing that they will be in full use before the end of the month. It’s the end of summer and the beginning of fall – the seasons are changing, and they do so just like clockwork – something that we can all depend on. It’s time to adjust, time for chefs to think differently and move in a new direction.
“Seasons change and so did I.”
No Time – Randy Bachman of the Guess Who
As much as summer will be missed and we may dread winter, fall provides plenty of inspiration for those who cook for a living. This is the time for the final harvest that has taken a full five months to develop – a time for squash, root vegetables, late season tomatoes, canning and freezing and methods of cooking that most chefs look forward to with great affection. This is the time to move from light meals and grilling, from beautiful salads and white wine to braised meats, roasted vegetables, stews, and fricassee, to hearty soups and smokers going full tilt and robust glasses of zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon, and Barolo. This is when “low and slow” becomes the more established method of cooking in kitchens throughout the Northeast.
Without a doubt, low and slow is my favorite style of cooking. I love that deep smell of slowly caramelizing onions and garlic, lesser cuts of meat rising to a level of prominence, the richness of butternut and acorn squash, parsnips, carrots, and brussels sprouts that were harvested after the first frost. Stocks simmering on the stove fill the kitchen with enticing aromas and light broths and pan reductions are replaced by pan gravies and the sauces that we have labeled “mother” because of their foundational attributes. Deeply satisfying and “stick to your ribs” viscosity, these foods help to bridge that change from 80-degree days to those that will barely extend beyond sub-freezing.
All cooking is magical, but slow cooking methods challenge cooks to tap into all their skills and demonstrate how this is a process of coaxing flavors to develop rather than allowing those initial ingredient characteristics to shine. During those low and slow methods, the essence of each ingredient blends with others creating something totally unique and wonderful to experience. Every hour that a lamb shank braises changes the texture, aroma, taste, and experience of consuming this ingredient that early on in cooking would be difficult to chew. That brisket that would transition from tough to tougher during those first few hours of smoking in a wood fired pit will melt in your mouth after another 8 hours or so. Carrots and parsnips that are low on the flavor scale as a raw vegetable become deeply pronounced and sweet during roasting or braising and a simple combination of onions and garlic are irresistible the longer, they come in contact with fire or indirect heat.
All of this is true and quite remarkable, but it will always be soup that demonstrates a cook’s real connection with the craft. I have enjoyed cooking thousands of restaurant meals and have equally enjoyed tasting the work of countless other chefs who continue to work on mastering their craft. I will always remember the mushroom soup at Union Pacific Restaurant when Rocco DiSpirito was at the helm. It must have taken a pound of mushrooms for every cup of broth. The double lamb consommé at the original Aquavit in the lands of Marcus Samuelsson was so good that I refused to share it with others at the table. It was topped with a quenelle of foie gras – truly the finest soup I have ever tasted. Through my own kitchen experiences, I have enjoyed making lobster bisque for a party of two as well as Mulligatawny for 500 in massive kettles. The joy of combining ingredients to make these heartwarming bowls of goodness is what cooking is all about. It was Chef Michael Minor of Minor Foods who said whenever he visited a restaurant for the first time, he would always order a cup of the soup of the day first. If the soup was good, then he knew the rest of the meal would be good as well. If not, then he would pay for the soup and go elsewhere.
Fall is the precursor to winter; it is the transition from the warmth of summer to the months of bone-chilling cold in the winter. Nature can be cruel at times, but it presents us with incredible food and the warmth that colder month’s methods of cooking offer as a gift and a way to help us move on and find our place until Spring.
There is a story behind every dish, a story worth sharing. Chefs and cooks tell their stories through the selection of ingredients, connections with the source, combination of flavors, attention to the details associated with cooking that dish, and the passion with which the finished product is plated and presented. The story behind low and slow begins with admiration for the farmer, the rancher, and the fisherman; addresses the attention they give to the lengthy process of bringing those flavors together, and the connections to the seasons best represented by these treasured methods. Every bite connects the diner with the dish, the chef, and the history behind it.
Raise a glass to great cooking and settle in – it will be quite some time before we plant seeds for another season of ingredients.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
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