Cozying up to slow cooking: WNC winters inspire wood-fired and slow cooker comfort food

GOING DUTCH: Cookbook author Barbara Swell uses the wood stove in her East Asheville home to make meals with a Dutch oven and foil packets.
GOING DUTCH: Cookbook author Barbara Swell uses the wood stove in her East Asheville home to make meals with a Dutch oven and foil packets. Photo by Cindy Kunst

In winter, when the outside world can be less than inviting, I take the opportunity to snuggle up to the stove and cook comfort food. Stocks, soups and stews gently simmer, infusing the house with savory scents. I immerse myself in the warmth they emit and enjoy the juxtaposition of whipping winds and the frozen outdoor landscape. I feel comforted and inspired by this contrast.

Northern European countries have specific words to describe these feelings. In places where winter can be harsh and long, it makes sense that words evolved to describe positive aspects of the winter chill. When night falls before the dinner hour, it feels right to delight in the glow of candles or firelight. It is fitting to cook dishes like beef short ribs or bean stew that need long, slow heat and are best eaten out of bowls that can double as hand-warmers. It makes sense to slow down a bit and spend time reading, cooking, puttering or indulging in a warm afternoon beverage with a friend.

The Danish word “hygge” was popularized around the world a few years ago to describe this cozy aesthetic. In the Netherlands, the word “gezellig” describes a similar notion.

Netherlands native Natascha van Aalst Leitner explains, “It’s more like a feeling — it’s not easy to describe. It’s something you need to feel or experience. It’s like watching a fire with your family, having a glass of wine with a friend or a great conversation in the kitchen.”

Leitner grew up in the Netherlands but has lived in the United States for 15 years, five of them in Asheville. When it’s chilly and dark outside, she likes to cook a big pot of vegetable soup similar to ones her grandmother used to make. Remembering her grandmother and enjoying that soup is the essence of gezellig.

Cooking just about anything on top of my woodstove gives me gezellig. I’ll never forget the year it snowed 5 inches on the day of our annual winter party. Right before folks arrived, the lights flickered, then went out. I was in the middle of making a big batch of soup on the wood stove that heats our house. The mulled wine and hot cider were on the back of the stove, and cornbread was staying warm on the mantelpiece.

We ran around lighting candles and looking for seldom-used oil lamps. The electric lights never came on that night, but the soup was hot, the bread was warm, the mulled wine was quickly consumed and, from what I recollect, the festivities were better than ever.

Asheville-based cookbook author and Appalachian wood-fired cookery aficionado Barbara Swell wants people to get excited when the power goes out. She fell in love with a man when she was 21 and moved into his old Civil War-era farmhouse with nothing but wood heat. Quickly seduced by wood-fired cookery, she moved on from that man but has been cooking on wood stoves ever since.

She describes cooking on top of a wood stove as a dance. “I think you are more limited with a regular stove,” she says. “You control the heat with the wood and move things around on top of the stove to get the right temperature.”

Swell often scoops the perfect red-hot embers out of the wood stove and takes them outside to make steamed puddings in her Dutch oven. “We always have gingerbread-apple upside down cake — you could also do that in a Crock Pot,” she says.

Most things you can do in a slow cooker you can also do on top of a wood stove. I tested the cake using a method I learned from Swell years ago. I preheated a Dutch oven on top of the stove, then placed three canning jar lid rings in the bottom with a greased cake pan on top of them. I put apple slices and batter in the pan,  put the lid on the Dutch oven, and an hour and a half later, I had a beautiful, steamed apple upside down cake made solely with the heat from the wood stove.

Swell also recommends cooking in foil packets on top of the stove. “I always line mine with parchment paper,” she says. “I put veggies in the package — you could do fish or chicken, onions are great with butter and a little garlic salt — you just stick them on the stove, flip them and then you’re done.”

The wood stove is also excellent for reheating food, she says — just wrap your leftovers in parchment paper and foil. “It’s not like other types of reheating because you get a little bit of char,” she says. “You can’t get that same char any other way.”

I regularly use the top of my wood stove as a slow cooker in the winter months for cooking beans, braising tougher cuts of pork or beef or using shiitake mushroom stems, veggie scraps or meat bones to make stock. Sauces, puddings and fondues also all happen atop my wood stove. If you heat your house with wood and have not experienced the gezellig of gathering around the chocolate fondue pot with friends on a cold winter night, there is no time like the present.

Cathy Cleary is the former co-owner of West End Bakery and Café, a cookbook author and co-founder of FEAST, a nonprofit dedicated to cooking and gardening education. Her book, The Southern Harvest Cookbook: Recipes Celebrating Four Seasons, debuted this month.

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About Cathy Cleary
Cathy Cleary works with gardens and food. Her cookbooks include "The West End Bakery Cafe Cookbook" and upcoming "The Southern Harvest Cookbook." Find her blog at thecookandgarden.com She is the co-founder of non-profit FEAST Asheville, providing edible education to kids. Follow me @cathyclearycook

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