Warm up with winter food

Minestrone-Style Stew is a delicious and attractive mixture of beef, broth, seasonings, vegetables, and pasta that is topped with Parmesan cheese. Tina Salter's Gratins: Savory and Sweet Recipes from Oven to Table has tasty recipes.
Minestrone-Style Stew is a delicious and attractive mixture of beef, broth, seasonings, vegetables, and pasta that is topped with Parmesan cheese. Tina Salter's Gratins: Savory and Sweet Recipes from Oven to Table has tasty recipes.

After a day battling cold weather, there is no better warm-up than comforting winter food. This includes braised entrees, one-pot meals, and gratins.

Braising is a cooking method in which the food (meat or vegetables) is browned in fat, then cooked, tightly covered, in a small amount of liquid on low heat for a long period. This develops flavor and tenderizes food, according to the Food Lover's Companion.

Braising can be done on the stove-top or in the oven.

Some classic braised dishes are osso buco, short ribs, coq au vin (chicken), and lamb shanks. The braising pot may be a deep Dutch oven, a skillet with a lid, or a French pot called a rondeau, writes Molly Stevens in All About Braising (Norton, $35). Today there are shallow braising pots such as the braiser pan (made by All-Clad) or bistro pan and buffet casserole (made by Le Creuset).

Braising is ideal for less-tender cuts of meat such as short ribs and stewing beef. The gentle simmering over low heat creates a fork-tender entree. Garlic, onion, and thyme in tandem with broth and wine add classic flavors to braised short ribs with red wine sauce.

Braising must be a cousin to stewing, a method of cooking for a long period in a tightly covered pot in which flavors blend and bite-size pieces of meat or poultry get tenderized. A variety of liquids can be used for stewing, ranging from red wine and beer to beef broth and water used in Minestrone-style Stew. Flank steak, beef chuck, or stewing beef can be used in stews.

Poultry can also be braised. Dry red wine is used in Chicken with Sweet Peppers, Pancetta, and Marjoram (Pollo con Peperoni) from Italian Slow and Savory by Joyce Goldstein (Chronicle, $40). The dish is simple to prepare, takes less than an hour, and provides an enticing aroma in the kitchen.

Casseroles, stews, and chili are examples of one-pot meals. "All are fun-to-eat hodgepodges of textures and flavors - from the meat, beans, and spices in a chili to the tomato, garlic, and seafood in a pasta sauce to the beef, vegetables, and grain in stews," writes Tom Valenti with Andrew Friedman in Tom Valenti's Soups, Stews, and One-Pot Meals (Scribner, $30).

These dishes can be personalized and changed easily. Chili can be made with ground beef, ground turkey or chicken, or ground venison. It can have red beans, white beans, black beans, or other vegetables such as carrots, celery, and onions found in Venison Chili. (This is a good way to introduce venison in your kitchen because it's difficult to overcook it, Mr. Valenti says. There is a fine line between perfectly cooked venison steaks or chops and overcooked, which makes grilling venison difficult for some cooks.)

The degree of spiciness in chili can range from simple chili powder to canned chipotle chiles, or fresh habanero chiles, or a hot sauce such as Tabasco or one of the many prepared sauces on the market. Don't make chili hotter than your guests can tolerate.

If potatoes au gratin is the extent of your experience with gratin, you'll be happy to discover a variety of vegetable and meat gratins.

It seems an old-fashioned way of cooking; I remember my grandmother topping macaroni and cheese and other dishes with buttered bread crumbs.

Gratin is a delicious way to cook vegetable, meat, and seafood dishes. The dishes are topped with cheese or bread crumbs mixed with bits of butter and then heated in the oven or under the broiler to make them brown and crispy.

The most difficult part is the first step: buying an oval gratin dish. Sure, you can use an 8-inch square or 9-by-13-inch rectangle glass baking dish. But there's something about an oval gratin dish - it's a little deeper, mirroring what a gratin should be. Prices can be $28 and less; I bought a $7 white (or blue) oval gratin on a sale table after Christmas.

The dish worked great with a three-pound butternut squash that I peeled and cut into 1/4-inch slices for Butternut Squash and Pecan Gratin with Goat Cheese. This was not the traditional gratin with buttered crumbs. Instead, goat cheese was sprinkled between two layers of the sauteed butternut squash and on top followed by pecan pieces; that was the browned topping. The unique flavor was delicious served with barbecued pork chops or even a ground beef patty.

The recipe was from Gratins: Savory and Sweet Recipes from Oven to Table by Tina Salter (Ten Speed Press, $18.95). Other recipes include Crispy Herbed Tomato Gratin with a topping of fresh bread crumbs and parsley, and Lemon-Scented Smoked Salmon and Potato Gratin.

I finished last week making Sausage, White Bean, and Chard Gratin and found the hardest part of the recipe was finding the ingredients of chard and fresh fennel. It's a recipe I'll revisit on next week's food page.

A new dish and new recipes will allow you to weather winter in tasty style.