As our independent restaurants rebound from the pandemic and creep steadily into our busy season of fall and winter, thoughts of higher priced and less desirable produce like lettuce, tomato and peppers appear on our radar. The glut of fresh herbs, onions and greens will soon be gone, but do not despair — there is an array of large, delicious and profitable foods that are available if you get out and look. Fall and winter menu items are hardy, easily compatible with our existing menu-mix items and downright easy to prepare.
Gourd of the Rings
For centuries, the countries of Europe have endured disease, hardships and wars. The resulting lack of food and even famine necessitated a creative use of all foods (and especially fall and winter flavor profiles). Here are a few examples of items that have traditionally been prepared and harvested to get people through the cold fall and winter.
Gourds, Squash and Root Vegetables: pumpkin, butternut, acorn and delicata squashes are perfect roasted with wheat in calzone, ravioli and pies or made into hardy soups with cinnamon and nuts. Late zucchini, kohlrabi, cabbage and cauliflower as well as beetroot, parsnips, turnips, celeriac, Jerusalem artichoke and daikon radish are some of the most versatile vegetables around during winter.
Cheeses: Be it hard, aged cheeses like Gouda, manchego, Pamigiano Reggiano, compte, Romano, ricotta salata, Caciocavallo and Piave Vecchio or semi aged cheeses like fontina, Gruyere, Stilton, Swiss, gorgonzola or Morbier, they all can be paired well with pasta, pizza and winter salads alike. Adding these to a cream with wilted winter greens like spinach, chicory, leek and chard is like heaven on earth.
Grains and legumes: polenta, risotto, chickpea and its flour, cannellini beans, wheat berries of all types, masa, arso nero, peas, semolina, spelt and even edamame can adorn a plate, pizza or side dish with amazing results. This category has the most creative uses in the past centuries to produce ravioli, cannelloni, tofu, soups, focaccia, stews and tortillas.
Charcuterie: pancetta, capicola, Mortadella, Loma, Merguez sausage, Prosciutto di Parma, guanciale, Cotechino sausage, Luganega sausage and Tripe represent all the cuts from snout to tail and fish like Baccala, Stoccafisso and Bottarga exhibit the curing techniques to make fish last into the winter months.
Some fall and winter items that are trending now are the result of the pandemic and people re-thinking their priorities and lifestyle choices. Others are due to the power of social media or just retreads from the 80s and 90s.
Here are some trending menu ideas: vegan and vegetarianism; mushrooms and roots; chickpeas; cooking oils like avocado, pumpkin seed, sunflower seed; milk alternatives like rice, hemp and oat milk; carbohydrate alternatives like cauliflower crust and gnocchi; lamb shank, tamales, beet slaw, crunchy Brussels sprouts, Collard greens with nut pestos; Grain bowls; pistachios, almond milk, fermenting, fermented locust bean; charcuterie boards; kombucha; ancient grains; New Zealand venison; Berkshire pork, fennel, Chicory, Butternut squash; figs, Farro; pomegranates; poke; and even hemp smoothies.
Here are a few delicious trendy Italian fall and winter menu items to consider:
- Cazzimperio, raw carrot, celery, radish, fennel, chickory with a great extra virgin olive oil mixed with and lots of pepper.
- Gnocci di Zucca, butternut squash
gnocci with a sage cream sauce, grated cheese and nutmeg.
- Fagioli con erb spontanee, cooked beans with mustard, fennel, chickory greens on toast.
- Spaghetti with dandelion greens and and bottarga, simple tossed greens topped with shavings of the sea.
- Pollo alla Romana, chicken cooked with a ragu of onions spicy peppers, garlic and tomato and simmered to perfection.
- Grilled Polenta, with chicken broth, chives, Parmigiano, cooled and served with chickpeas.
- Involtini di Vitello, Sauteed veal, sage, prosciutto and Parmigiano packets.
- Budino di Castagne, chestnut pudding with eggs, milk, vanilla and rum.
- Cicoria Saltata, chickory sauteed with garlic, chili pepper and extra virgin olive oil.
Timballo di Orecchiette al Forno
This pasta dish is an all-time favorite championed by my chef friend Giovanni di Negris while we both worked at La Primavera Restaurant in Chicago. The beauty of this dish is all in the preparation — the assembly and baking are amazingly fast and straightforward. This traditional Puglian pasta with meat sauce sits perfectly in between the cooked rounds of eggplant with Pecorino Romano and is topped with another nod to Puglian cheese — fresh burrata.