This is the season for low and slow cooking—the time to slow-braise beef in red wine over a low heat for spoon tender results, or to slow-roast goat until it falls off the bone and melts in your mouth.
I secretly love cold winter days because they give me the perfect excuse to stay inside and play in my kitchen. In summer it is too hot to stand over a boiling pot of ragu or roast something in your oven for hours. But during winter it warms the house and spirit to have pots bubbling away on the stove, your oven acting as a heater.
Goat, rabbit and beef cheeks are some of my favorite winter meats. They’re healthy and, in Tunisia, budget friendly. These lean proteins require a little extra time to get just right, but once finished the dishes are so delicious you will forget all about the rain and the wind howling outside.
Goat is a lean meat that has fewer calories and more potassium than most other proteins. It also has twice as much iron as beef and is an easy meat to cook with a deliciously mild gamey flavor.
I came to love goat growing up in southern California because it is a favorite in Latin American cultures where they stew it or roast it and shred the meat for tacos. In the Caribbean, it is paired with bold spices and scorching hot Scotch bonnet chili peppers to make the famous Jamaican goat curry.
I also love it in Indian curries or marinated in yogurt over night and roasted to make Middle Eastern kabobs. Yogurt acts as a tenderizer and helps break down the meat to make it supple; coconut milk can get you the same desired effect. I usually add one or the other to my curry recipes while the meat is stewing.
Because the meat is so lean, it must be cooked at a low temperature for a long time until it begins to pull apart easily with a fork. Otherwise it can be tough and chewy. But don’t let the long cooking time deter you; once you put it on the stove or in the oven, you can forget about it for hours while you binge-watch episodes of your favorite TV show.
Rabbit is expensive and hard to find in America; it used to be one of my favorite meats to order in restaurants on special occasions because I was too scared to try making it at home.
But in Tunisia rabbit is cheap, abundant and fresh. So fresh in fact that the first time I ordered it from the butcher, he pulled out a live one and butchered it right in front of me. I burst into tears. This city girl had never seen an animal killed before. Now a seasoned veteran of Eid Kbir, the Muslim holiday where many Tunisian families slaughter a sheep, I am accustomed to such rituals and appreciate knowing exactly where my meat comes from.
Roasted rabbit is delicious but my two favorite ways to enjoy the animal’s sweet and subtle flavor are in a classic French stew with white wine or in one of my all time favorite Italian dishes, Rabbit ragu with mushrooms.
The Italian dish is perfect for a romantic meal at home on a cold winter’s night. Cooked for several hours until the meat is falling off the bone and the sauce has reduced to a velvety thickness, it goes beautifully with thick ribbons of pappardelle or fettuccini pasta. Finish it off with a flurry of shaved parmesan.
Beef cheeks are literally the cheek muscle of the cow. They are extremely lean and need to be braised in liquid for a very long time. Once the meat has been cooked though, it becomes so tender you can eat it with a spoon. At 10 dinars per kilogram, beef cheeks are one of the most affordable cuts of beef out there, and they will be popular with fans of pulled brisket or braised short ribs; there are no dry stringy bits and every bite is moist and tender.
The most common braising liquid for beef cheeks is red wine, but if you prefer not to cook with alcohol you can substitute beef stock. I love them marinated in red wine over night and then braised for hours in the same marinade. Serve the meat with a simple saffron risotto and a reduction of the braising liquid and you have a restaurant-quality meal and a modern twist on the Italian classic Osso Buco Milanese.
Homemade stocks are one of my other favorite things to make on a rainy winter day. Spend one day making a batch of chicken stock or beef stock and you have enough to freeze and use again for the rest of winter.
Some stocks are very easy to make; chicken stock, for example, just requires some chicken bones and a few aromatic vegetables thrown in a pot and simmered on low for hours. Any time I cook chicken on the bone or roast a whole chicken, I save the carcass to use the next day.
The same goes for shellfish, whenever I buy shrimp I always have the seller leave the shell on: first, because shrimp cooked in the shell has more flavor and will keep moist and, second, because you can freeze the leftover shells and then use them to make an easy and incredibly flavorful shellfish stock.
Fish stock can be made in 30 minutes. Just ask your fishmonger for any leftover fish heads. Sea bass heads and bones make great fish stock. Avoid using darker fish like salmon or tuna, or any really oily fish.
Both shellfish stock and fish stock call for white wine, but this ingredient is optional. I have made both without and the flavor is still good. The wine just adds extra depth and makes the flavor richer.
Beef stock is the most complicated stock and involves a few more steps. To really bring out the flavor, have the butcher saw the bones in half and then roast them. Homemade beef stock is worth the effort. It adds a unique richness to your soups and sauces and will keep for months in the freezer.
There is nothing better than walking in from the cold and being greeted by the delicious aroma of meat braising away on the stove or roasting in the oven. Fight the winter blues with these warm and hearty winter dishes.