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Cooking for the Cold

Local chefs suggest hearty, bone-sticking recipes

On a frigid winter day, you might find Chef Cary Prokos preparing chicken for a long soak in a red wine marinade for Coq au vin, standing over a cauldron of bouillabaisse to ensure that his scallops, rockfish and other seafoods are seasoned with hefty proportions of saffron and garlic to create a hearty soup. His goal is to create meals with enough brawn to stand-up to the ravenous, cold-weather induced appetites of the patrons at his Potomac restaurant, Normandie Farm.

Prokos and other local culinary experts say that it’s possible to satisfy cold-weather taste buds that crave robust flavors at home as well. From root vegetables to lean meat, they say it’s all about eating simply and seasonally.

When Prokos is at home, for example, his menu takes a still hearty, but more realistic turn. “My wife Margery and I are busy running the kids to sports practices, music lessons and other activities,” said Prokos, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. “When we meet back at home for dinner, it has to be easy. We throw something like chicken — everything from legs and thighs to bone-in breasts — in the crockpot earlier in the day and it’s ready in the evening.”

Prokos pours in chicken broth then tosses in chopped vegetables like celery, onions and carrots. Later, he adds orzo. The concoction, he says, is enhanced with an herb like thyme.

“People want food to be easy and choose food out of default rather than choosing something fabulous. So plan ahead,” said Janet Zalman, president of the Zalman Nutrition Group. She recently created a winter meal plan for a Potomac client. A key piece of advice that she offered: “On a bitterly cold, dark night, don’t eat a salad and expect to be satisfied.”

Instead, she says, roast vegetables like cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and carrots. “Toss your vegetables with olive oil and herbs like thyme, basil or oregano,” said Zalman. “Add a little garlic powder, just a touch of salt and roast them in the oven at 350 [degrees] for 45 minutes.”

“If you don’t like to come home from work and chop vegetables, buy them on Sunday and chop them,” she continued. “Teach your children how to chop.”

For those who crave a crunch, Zalman offers kale chips. “To make kale chips, spray them with olive oil, add garlic and just a drop of salt. Roast them in a 350 degree oven for 20 minutes.”

Winter is a time when Chef Kristen Robinson, an instructor at The International Culinary School at The Art Institute of Washington, takes on the ultimate slow food: cassoulet. With its origins in the South of France, this meat-studded, white bean-based stew can take hours or even days to make. Robinson, however, adds a healthier, speedier twist: “I cook the white beans and have them on hand,” she said. “Then, when I want to make cassoulet, I heat them up with caramelized onions and roasted butternut squash and small pieces of kale and a nice piece of chicken.”

Robinson also uses winter’s readily available citrus. “Oranges, grapefruit, kumquats are in season now,” she said. “A lot of people wonder what they can do with carrots. I roast them with balsamic vinegar, olive and orange peel. The orange peels seeps into the carrots and they develops an orange flavor, almost like orange juice on your carrots, but even better.”

Vienna, Va., based Christine Wisnewski an instructor at Culinaria Cooking School says, “The moment the temperatures start to drop, I crave hearty food. It can be hard to satisfy that craving while keeping it healthy.”

Soup makes frequent appearances on Wisnewski’s dinner table during winter. “I try to make a pot or two of soup per week,” she said. “They can be hearty and healthy. Seasonally you can add potatoes or sweet potatoes, hearty greens like kale, corn and white beans, kidney beans or garbanzo beans for protein. You can have peak produce any time of the year with frozen vegetables.”

For bulk and substance, Wisnewski suggests tossing in barley or farro.

Winter also is a time when Wisnewski recreates the comfort food staple: potpie. “I am a huge fan of chicken pot pie,” she said. “I avoid the bottom crust and top it with home made biscuits. You can cut calories there.” She also makes a light sauce for her potpies and avoids heavy cream.

“It is not a question that when you hunker down in cold weather that you crave heartier food,” said Wisnewski. “It’s just about keeping it delicious and healthy.”