What's on the Stove When the World's a Freezer

Minnesotan chefs have advice for eating well in the winter months.
According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources — not the Office of Tourism — the average winter temperature in the lower half of the state is 16 degrees Fahrenheit.

The average.

"You're knee deep in snow sometimes," says Minnesota chef Mike Brown. "Here it's super intense. It's like the majority of the year it's winter."

So what do frozen diners want? Different cooks have different ideas. Brown and his colleagues at one of the region's most acclaimed restaurants, Travail Kitchen and Amusements, just north of Minneapolis in Robbinsdale, serve warmth and comfort.

"I like making winter food a lot," Brown says. "It's about heartiness. You've got to bring it back to the basics. That's what people want a lot of the time. They want to come into Grandma's house and have biscuits and butter."

Fall and winter are prime time for root vegetables like carrots, turnips and parsnips — and the kind of savory flavors chefs describe with the Japanese word umami. "It's kind of like you're forced by nature into heartier foods," Brown says, "like braised greens and potatoes and all these different things that are protein- and carbohydrate-rich foods, where in the summer you have fresh vegetables just coming straight out of the garden. Late October, early November, all the fun vegetables go away.

"In the winter, you have to be smart," he continues. "You have to focus on different flavor profiles. Because if you don't, you're just kind of a hack. Kind of a shoemaker. I mean, if you've got tomatoes in December, they were probably grown in California and picked green and now they're off-orange ripe for you to use."

Chef Erick Harcey at Victory 44 in Minneapolis takes a slightly different approach — saving a bit of summer to serve in winter.

"Fall and winter get to be exhausting  after a while," Harcey says. "I love root vegetables like the next chef but at some point they all run into being the same thing. I'm a huge proponent of canning things. Pulling tomatoes out that are canned and beautiful that you can use in the winter puts a bit more diversity in the plates, rather than everything being a root vegetable. You do a beautiful venison roast, and to add a pickled crab apple that came in from the season just takes the dish to a new level. It brightens it. Pickles are a huge thing for me that lighten the heaviness of fall, winter food."

Brown and his fellow chefs at Travail embrace subtle seasonal changes, drawing culinary calendar distinctions as nuanced as a compass point like southeast by east. An example: A late-summer/early-fall steak dish included a warm tomato tart, roasted maitake mushrooms and a tomato vinaigrette with kohlrabi and snap peas. Two weeks later, the steak dish was recast with the more savory flavors of black garlic ("a fermented super umami freakout," Brown says), black trumpet mushroom purée and two kinds of potatoes — twice-baked purple fingerling potatoes and little dollops of garlic mashed Yukon Golds — with little bits of chives and watercress.

"People want that steak and potatoes," Brown says. "They can feel it when they come in."

The change of season also affects how chefs cook at home — especially for Harcey and his wife, who have four boys ages 2 to 7.

"I love stews," Harcey says. "I love throwing roasts in and doing braises and stuff. But instead of doing it with big heavy vegetables, I like to do more endive. Braised meat with maybe some late-season apples and a salad. So you get that heartiness of the meat but a little bit lighter with the accoutrements. I'm a meat and potatoes guy, but I don't like eating it often because then I just feel like I need to nap."

For the home cook, Brown's advice is simple: Focus on the pantry. "Get really nice barley, get really nice arborio rice, get really nice polenta — even things like organic new potatoes and stuff like that," he says. "You're working with a lot of dried beans, you're working with a lot of flour. We jump into breads, because that's the time of the year. It's bread season, man. You need to make some bread. The last thing on my mind is trying to make any kind of summer food."