A new year is like a new palette, pristine and inviting, a stage for innovation and self-expression. As we craft our vision for the next 12 months of meals, here are some suggestions for making your life both easy and delicious — and, of course, nutritious.
Use what you have
There is something that can be confected with every ingredient in your larder. The greatest path to innovation grows from pairing unlikely elements and finding a way to make them sing together. This can be done through the addition of a sauce that ties unexpected flavors together or through some bridge ingredient that unites two strangers in a dish. Go through your pantry regularly and isolate ingredients you would like to use up quickly. Then consult the following list of basic dishes that can be adapted to multiple expressions. Keep your mind open and experiment.
Riff off recipes you know
Surely, you have a collection of recipes in your go-to arsenal that can be tailored to any ingredient you might pull out of your kitchen — quiches, soups, stir-fries, casseroles, omelets and risottos are a few. You can also dress up simple dishes, such as adding peas, squash, turnips or bacon to mashed potatoes. And, of course, you can pair any kind of pasta with any kind of sauce, from fresh vegetables in season to refried beans with shallots and chopped winter greens.
Work with the seasons
As we all know, foods gathered in their natural growing season are those richest in nutrients as well as being the most beautiful specimens on the market. This highlights foods grown naturally in your geographic area. Wild greens in March. Asparagus in April. Strawberries in June. Tomatoes in July. Corn in August. Apples in September. Root vegetables and dried beans in winter. Make the most of what grows right outside your back door or the items you find available at a nearby farmers market. Celebrate each time a new ingredient becomes available.
As the chef in your household, you have carte blanche to season and adorn dishes as your tastes dictate. Throw in a handful of fresh seasonal herbs; whip up a cream sauce; spice with chile peppers, curry or lemon grass; add sautéed ramps, onions or shallots; garnish with edible flowers, chervil or chopped roasted nuts; serve on a bed of sautéed greens, whipped root vegetables or funky pasta. The sky’s the limit, and the contents of your kitchen will determine what you serve.
Go off the wall
Remember that your point of reference is new and refreshing for anyone who sits at your table, and glory in your own particular sleights of hand. At the same time, dare to try new things, reaching out to embrace other cultures and ingredients not usually within your frame of reference. Take advantage of the phone in your hands or the computer at your elbow and look up the culinary traditions of a culture that has always intrigued you. Find a shop in your area that specializes in unique ingredients and try something new to give you a fresh window on the year ahead.
As you contemplate the ingredients that make your heart go pitter-patter, consider the following appetizer, which combines the earthiness of beets, the unctuosity of butter, the crispness of bacon and the depth of bourbon all in one mouthful.
Roasted beets with butter, bacon and bourbon
Fresh beets with greens
Wash beets and cut off the greens about an inch above their base. Set beets in a pot with a few inches of water and a little salt, and simmer until almost tender. Slip off skins and, if beets are large, cut into generous chunks (about an inch square). Marinate in bourbon while cooling down, then wrap each beet morsel in a thin slice of bacon. (Fasten with a toothpick, only if necessary.) Place on a baking sheet, sprinkle with sea salt and freshly ground pepper, lay thyme sprigs over the ensemble and bake at 400 degrees until the bacon is crispy. Serve hot.
Meanwhile, if greens are still intact, lightly steam them (or wilt them in a skillet) and serve alongside, seasoned with a knob of butter, a sprinkle of sea salt and a grind of fresh pepper.
Note: Try the same treatment with other root vegetables, leeks, asparagus, green beans or any other ingredient you may wish to highlight.
Chef, musician and author, Susi Gott Séguret orchestrates a variety of culinary experiences including her flagship Seasonal School of Culinary Arts, the Appalachian Culinary Experience and the upcoming Asheville Truffle Experience (Feb. 7-9). Details are at schoolofculinaryarts.org.