Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Winter Moves South

Every few years Mother Nature decides to make the residents of the northern Gulf coast pay for the beautiful weather they have most of the year. Lately She's been sending Canadian cold fronts all the way to the beach. Now I know that it's much colder "up north" but you must remember...we think 40° marks the beginning of a major Ice Age. But this time it's for real. In the past few days we've had lows in the upper teens and highs that just barely reached 40°! That's a big jump from last week's highs in the upper 70s. Tonight's forecast calls for a hard freeze again and probably more warm air by the first of next week. Ah, winter in the South. At least it's not boring.

As a result of this meteorological roller coaster, there is no such thing as "winter clothes" down here. Yeah, we have coats and scarves, but we also can wear shorts and flip flops in January. The biggest problem is having a closet big enough to have all your clothes available in all year round. My closet hanging rod is bending from the weight of a 4-season selection of ensembles.

The cold weather has stirred the nesting instinct in me. I want soft, woogie socks and thick afghans, hot Constant Comment orange spice tea, English period piece movies (oh, Colin Firth) and steaming bowls of soup or stew with warm, fresh bread. This need for comfort led me to one of my favorite cold weather foods - "Bonia" or Lentil Peas. The recipe came from my friend Raymond Lowe's cookbook Caribbean Inspiration in Cooking.
Raymond Lowe in Coastal Living magazine
As most cooks tend to do, I have taken the liberty of making a few changes in Chef Ray's recipe - for the better, I hope he would think. Instead of water and a chicken bouillon cube, I use homemade chicken broth. I have also found that cooking the lentils in the crockpot keeps the lentils whole and not turn them into just a big mush - although it tastes great either way. This recipe makes a enough for at least 10 people so I always have some to eat now and some to freeze for another cold and blustery day.

Here's Chef Ray's recipe - it's super easy and makes the house smell great while it's cooking. So put on a little steel drum music, turn the furnace up, and get ready to dish up a big bowl of lentil peas, Caribbean style - enjoy a short jaunt to the islands where the only white stuff on the ground is beautiful white sand.
Lentil Peas
  • 1 pound of lentils washed and sorted (rocks are not good, trust me on this one)
  • 2 quarts water (here's where I used chicken broth)
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons green onions, chopped - green and white parts
  • 3 tablespoons of cilantro, minced (no, the dry stuff in the jar won't do)
  • 3 tablespoons fresh ginger, minced (dry won't work here either, go get the real thing, if the piece is big and you won't use it all, plant it)
  • 4 garlic cloves, smashed and minced (I love smashing them under a wide bladed kitchen knife)
  • 1 tablespoon Maggi chicken bouillon (I add this to the chicken broth for a richer flavor)
  • 1 teaspoon Tony's Creole seasoning (if it's not available where you live there are a couple of good recipes on The Gumbo Pages)
  • 1 teaspoon Caribbean jerk seasoning (McCormick makes a pretty good one and there's a good recipe on

Combine all ingredients in a heavy pot, cover and cook over medium heat for 1 to 1 1/2 hours or put in a crockpot and cook about 6 hours on low. Check the peas after a couple of hours to see if they are soft but not mushy - they should be al dente but not crunchy. If using a pot on the stove you may to add water as they cook down - in the crock pot they don't need any extra liquid. You can add more Creole seasoning for a hotter taste but be careful, it has salt in it. Tony's says that if you add enough to make the food salty enough, it's spicy enough. The Taller Half and I like to put a dollop of sour cream on top.

Here's how I make my homemade chicken broth:

  • 1 whole fryer chicken cut up or a package of thighs or wings.
  • 2 ribs of celery cut into thirds
  • 1 sweet onion, leave it whole, just cut the ends off so you can peel the paper away (I use a large one, hey, I like onions)
  • 1 small red bell pepper halved and seeded
  • 1 large carrot, scraped and cut into thirds
  • olive oil

Put just enough olive oil in a large soup or stock pot to coat the bottom of the pot. Add the vegetables and saute over medium high heat until softened but not browned

Add the chicken pieces and fill with cold water up to within 2" off the top of the pot. Bring to a rolling boil. After it begins to boil, turn the heat down to where the liquid just barely simmers and cover the pot. Simmer until the meat starts to fall off the bones. Put a colander in a large bowl and pour the broth in. Remove the strained meat and veggies, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate until the fat has floated to the top and congealed - usually overnight. The next day, skim the hardened fat from the top of the bowl and measure out what you need for whatever you're cooking. Freeze the rest in 2-cup portions for up to 6 months.

Now comes the part I like best: take the whole onion (and the other veggies if you like, I just want the onion), put it in a bowl with butter - the real stuff, man, no oleo for me, and add salt and pepper to taste. Now that's comfort food!

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