The Blank Page

by Brian Kerr, Executive Chef, Deschutes Brewery & Public House

What could possibly be more daunting, or more exciting, than a blank sheet of paper? That is how I feel when theses cold weather months come to the Central Oregon region; what am I going to serve? What do I cook for family? How far do I want my food to travel before it gets to me? Can I really live without tomatoes for six months? And corn? What about all the guests that are coming to the pub, how do I keep them excited about our offerings? Those are the daunting thoughts. The exciting thoughts tend to be more of the same, but with a different attitude, just flipped on its head. I get to serve my family a whole new menu this winter with distinct possibilities of not only increasing my skills, but turning them on to new flavors! Ya!

Ok, honestly it isn’t always going to go that smoothly. I am looking at the list of produce items that grow in Central Oregon from December to March and I see beets, Brussels sprouts, mushrooms, onions, cauliflower, kale, parsnips, winter squash, carrots… there are number of more delicate greens too, but I don’t often see them materialize through my purveyors. So, if I cannot exactly reap the ‘bounty’ of the available produce, I can capitalize on a lot of those hardier vegetables just by changing the way I think, and the way I cook. While summer and spring might bring out the salad bowls and sauté pans, the chilly months are the season for Dutch ovens, slow cookers, braising and roasting. I will also gladly reach for the items that I ‘put up’ this year; my pickles, preserves, kimchi, sauces, salsas. I will also switch gears to use some of the meats that are now being sold by local ranchers like lamb and goat. Winter is definitely the season for creativity! Let’s see where that attitude takes us.

Vegetables are often the recipient of the most attention around this time, including beets, Brussels, onions, squashes and one of my favorite yet overlooked items to work with, cabbage. Behold the humble cabbage! How do I love thee, let me count the ways. Roasted with nuts and cheese, cabbage and farro soup, cabbage spring rolls, chopped up in a taco (my other obsession today) tempura cabbage (ya, that’s right) hand pies. My hands down favorite, though I cannot yet make this myself, is stuffed cabbage rolls or golumpki. My friend Rich over at Big Ski Pierogi makes these daily and you can find me hunkered down over one of his savory concoctions with a couple of pinched pierogi on the side! His food is warm, rich, inviting and wholly satisfying.

Another item I look forward to using pretty regularly is celery root, or celeriac. It’s a knobby, hairy, awkward thing to behold, but carve away its rough exterior, cube it and toss it with herbs and oil and you have a delicious addition to your roasted vegetable dish alongside carrots, turnips and rutabagas. You can boil your cubes until they soften and add them to your mashed potatoes for a delicate celery flavor. Don’t trim or wash your celery root until you are ready to use it, it will discolor.

Butternut squash and its squashy brethren are the real heroes and probably gives the chef and home cook the largest food palette to work with, being as versatile as they are. In the past two weeks I have made butternut squash ravioli, butternut squash and coconut cream soup, butternut squash and caramelized onion tarts, delicate squash pizza with pancetta and fresh ricotta, roasted acorn squash with butter and brown sugar and kabocha squash curry.

Another focus of cold weather cooking should also be the soups we love. I meet plenty of guests at the pub who come in specifically for our soup. We have two staple soups, our chicken and green chili soup and a French onion. Beyond that we have a soup of the day that rotates not every day, but perhaps every other. Here at Deschutes Brewery and Pub we try to mix it up a bit by offering vegetarian soups or vegan soups, creamy soups, brothy soups, soups with beans, soups with grains, soups with pasta and soups with meatballs. Soups are one of those comfort items that are ubiquitous any time, so by all means pull your soup cookbook off the shelf and go through your pantry, grab those leftover beans, dregs of pasta, a couple bouillon cubes and some herbs and there you are, comforting soup.

I don’t know about you but I like to use my slow cooker now more often than I do in the summer weather. Today I have some marinated pork in my crock pot simmering away to become carnitas later on. A crock pot, or your instant pot, will do all the work for you; well, most of the work. All you really need to do is plan a bit, do some chopping the night before, prep a light broth out of your bouillon cubes or your frozen bone broth, toss in some herbs, onions, wine or beer and a hunk of tough meat like beef chuck roast or brisket and let it go all day while you are at work. Last weekend I bought some goat from a local purveyor and I marinated it with cumin and coriander, star anise, cinnamon, some vinegar and canned tomato for two days, then I seasoned it with salt, pepper and garlic and braised it with some Da ‘Shootz lager beer for several hours until it was soft. I served it with seasoned cabbage, lime, radish, salsa borracha and salsa de arbol. I made this tostada-style but it would work equally well as a taco with some fortified black beans.

Another method of cooking that you probably don’t utilize a lot when it’s hot and smoky in August, is braising. Slow cooking in heat and moisture isn’t at the top of the list when the sun is beating down and you have other things you’d rather be doing like being at the lake or in your kayak on the river. But the warm, inviting aromas of a locally-grown leg of lamb or goat shoulder for stew are seeping through your house with hints of parsley, mint, garlic, onions, spices and the richness of it all, nothing is quite as comforting at coming home to someone roasting a delicious meal in the oven. Even a simple thing like a roast chicken with lemon and garlic paired with a creamy polenta and a delicate herb sauce can turn an ordinary, après ski afternoon into a memorable meal. Not to mention chicken salad sandwiches the next day, or soup, or tacos!

When it comes to wintery weather, meats, vegetables and braising aren’t the only stars of the show. The most obvious low-hanging fruit is, well, the low hanging fruit, like apples and pears. Grocery stores are overflowing with this season’s harvest of both, particularly apples. At the pub we use a sturdy granny smith variety to hold up against our fennel salad, and our sauerkraut. Pears are far more delicate and need to be handled and held carefully in order to keep them looking great on the plate. Since doing so in a very busy restaurant isn’t always the best course, we will often take a harder variety, perhaps a BOSC, and simmer it with sweet wine and spices, or we might grill it, or slice it and put it in a dessert. With the apples we take slightly softer varieties and roast them alongside some pork loins or ribs and a mustard sauce, or toss freshly cut ones with nuts and cheese and a hardy lettuce with a mellow vinaigrette. Adding sliced apples to a simple pre-dinner snack plate of toasted nuts and hard cheeses with spicy crackers totally seals the deal. Stewing apples into a chutney is the perfect accompaniment to any pork dish at all. Bread a pork cutlet and fry it up? Apple chutney. Make a spicy pork sausage? Apple chutney. Standing in the snow grilling marinated pork tenderloins? Apple chutney of course.

There is so much that Central Oregon has to offer all year round, don’t let the lack of local produce in the cold weather deter you. There is so much more than snowboarding and skiing, long walks by the river with your dog, snow shoeing and taking in a movie or a play. Stay home instead of standing in line and make a memorable meal! We all have to eat, many of us are skilled at doing the cooking for you and many more want to care for you when you come to our restaurants. This message is for you home cooks — break out of your summer and fall routines, grab the dusty soup tureen from the top shelf, clean your Dutch oven and roasting pans, cruise the produce and meat aisles of your local grocer or Locavore, surf the web looking for ideas and purveyors and producers of the bounty of our region. Your choices of ingredients might be limited, but your creativity is where you shine in these shorter, chillier, comforting yet thrilling days to come.

photos by Brian Kerr & Stock

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