Jim Bailey | The Yankee Chef: Warm, comforting meals for cold winter nights

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With the temperature hovering below or only slightly above zero, our instinct is to stay indoors, in partial hibernation. And many times, part of that hibernation is turning to hearty comfort foods that can warm us inside and out, and warm our homes with delicious aromas.

One of my go-to comfort meals is smoked ham and pinto pandowdy. A little bit of the infamous "cut-in" crust of a New England pandowdy, but with the substantial heartiness of a cobbler topping makes this a filling meal. Quick, simple and loads of flavor, this dish reminds me of a Minnesotan Hot Pot.

Smoked ham and pinto pandowdy

Makes 4 good-sized servings



INGREDIENTS:


Quick biscuit topping (recipe below)

2 tablespoons butter or margarine

1/2 cup minced green bell pepper

1/2 cup minced onion

1 15-ounce can pinto beans, drained *

8 ounces smoked ham, diced

1 1/2 cups (about 6 ounces) shredded Cheddar cheese

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1 15-ounce can cream-style corn

2 to 3 tablespoons heavy, light or half-and-half cream



DIRECTIONS:


For the quick biscuit topping, combine 1 cup flour, 1 teaspoon baking powder and 1/2 teaspoon salt in a large bowl, mixing well. Add 4 tablespoons cold butter or margarine and rub it in with your fingertips so that the butter feels and looks like little pebbles. Add 3/4 cup milk and 1/3 cup shredded cheddar cheese. Incorporate everything evenly and empty out onto a well-floured work surface. Knead for a couple minutes until no longer sticky and roll it out large enough to cover the 2-quart baking dish you will be using in this recipe. Brush cream over the top and leave on counter while continuing with recipe.



Preheat oven to 400-degrees F. In a medium saucepan, melt butter over medium high heat. Add peppers and onions, stirring well. Cook 2 minutes. Add pinto beans, ham, cheese, Worcestershire sauce and cream-style corn, blending well. Transfer to a 2-quart casserole dish and bake 20 minutes.

Slide rack out from oven and lift prepared biscuit topping to place on casserole, cream-brushed side facing up. Return rack and continue baking until biscuit is browned, another 20 minutes.

Remove from oven to cut biscuit topping into casserole. Serve hot.

* Any type of beans works great here, especially lima.

I think my favorite meals growing up was the fried chicken with honey my dad used to make. He always had it on his menu in every restaurant he owned as well, and for good reason! Deliciousness. So I ran with the idea, added a little more spice and I think this is a recipe that will stay on your mind for years to come as well.

Chinese orange-honey chicken

INGREDIENTS:

Oil for frying

1 pound chicken breast, cut into 1-inch pieces

6 tablespoons cornstarch

6 tablespoons flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

10 tablespoons water

Juice from 1 orange, plus extra juice

2 teaspoons cornstarch

2-4 tablespoons minced red bell pepper

2 teaspoons minced garlic in oil

2 teaspoons butter or margarine

1/4 cup honey

1 teaspoon grated orange zest

1/2 teaspoon dried ginger

DIRECTIONS:

Heat oil in deep fryer according to manufacturer's instructions. Or heat 3 to 4 cups oil in heavy saucepan over medium to medium high heat until it reaches 375-degrees F.

In a large bowl, blend cornstarch, flour, baking powder and salt. Whisk in the water until smooth. Put all the chicken pieces in batter and gently stir until all the pieces are coated. Carefully drop a third of the chicken pieces in hot oil and deep fry 2 to 3 minutes, or until browned and floating, turning at least once to evenly cook. Remove to a paper towel-lined pan and give the oil a minute rest to reheat. Repeat with remaining chicken (in batches, if needed), until all of it is cooked.

In a small bowl, whisk 1 tablespoon orange juice with cornstarch until smooth; set aside. In a large skillet, over medium high heat, add red bell pepper, garlic and butter. Cook 2 minutes, stirring often. Add honey, remaining orange juice (adding more juice to make 3/4 cup), orange zest and ginger. Bring to boiling and stir in cornstarch slurry. Stir and cook until thickened, about 10 seconds. Reduce heat to medium and add all the chicken. Stir to coat each piece and continue cooking until all the chicken is heated through. Remove to serve immediately.

Winter is the perfect time of year for this ultimate in ragouts! Ragouts are usually heavily spiced and is usually considered a stew, but I took this one step further, transforming this into a substantial meal with just the right amount of spice.

Peppery sausage ragout

Serves 3



INGREDIENTS:


2 links sweet or hot Italian sausage, sliced and halved

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 pound potatoes, diced small

1 small onion, diced

1 bell pepper, diced

1/2 cup whole kernel corn

1 large, hard, tart apple, peeled, cored and diced

2 tablespoons ketchup

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

2 tablespoons water

1 teaspoon hot sauce

Polenta:

3/4 cup water

3/4 cup milk

3 tablespoons cornmeal

1/2 teaspoon each salt and cracked black pepper

DIRECTIONS:

In a large skillet over medium high heat, sausage, cooking and turning until completely cooked through. Remove sausage and set aside. Add oil until hot, then add potatoes, onion, bell pepper, corn and apple, stirring to combine well. Reduce heat to medium and cover. Cook for about 8 to 10 minutes, stirring frequently, until potatoes are tender.

Meanwhile, whisk ketchup, mustard, water and hot sauce; set aside.

When potatoes are ready, remove lid and add sausage back into the pan along with ketchup mixture. Stir well, reduce heat to low, cover and simmer while making polenta.

Bring water and milk to a boil over medium high heat in a medium saucepan. Slowly stream the cornmeal into water mixture with one hand and whisk with the other, until all cornmeal has been added. Immediately remove from heat and whisk in salt and pepper

To serve, ladle a third of the polenta on a plate along with a third of the ragout. Repeat with 2 additional plates and serve hot.

Jim Bailey, The Yankee Chef, is the author of several cookbooks, including the most recent "The Sweet Fight." This cookbook shows various ways to use fruits and veggies in order to get children to become curious, excited, interested and accustomed to changing their eating habits without missing the empty nutrition found in chocolate. All the profit from this cookbook goes to a variety of causes that affect children, such as homeless shelters, school lunches, surprise holiday food boxes or presents, summer programs and more.


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