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Chef John Foster: Really, Christmas is coming; so is different way of cooking, eating, enjoying ‘comfort’

Christmas is coming!! No really, it is.

I heard my first Christmas music this week and some of my neighbors still have their decorations up from last year.

You want more proof?

Black Friday sales which used to be advertised for the day after Thanksgiving are now the subject of a race to see who has enough hutzpah to announce theirs before Thanksgiving. I’m not talking the night before, but a month before.

Never fear, the slow food season is here, the food of warmth and comfort, the family sit down. While the rest of the world careens towards the speedbump that is Thanksgiving, headed towards Christmas, you can rest assured that there will be some good food along the way.

We are entering the heritage food season, a time when we remember and relive some of the best meals and most delicious food of our lives. Part of that remembrance is interwoven with atmosphere and emotion, but the core of these meals is grounded in repetition and refinement.

Given generations to improve on a dish, even one that is served only once a year, creates a true recipe that in the hands of a dedicated cook will almost always delight and sustain. The ingredients are very familiar and the rituals surrounding the preparation of the dishes can be part of the enjoyment. Hauling out the old manual grinder to make fresh cranberry orange relish was one of my early jobs, and one you mastered before you moved on to rolls or stuffing. I’ve since moved on to a simmered version of the same recipe as my wife and I blended traditions when we started our family, but the flavor profile stays the same, as does the satisfaction.

What makes this time of year most enjoyable is the reconnection with past meals, and the chance to slide back into the fall and winter with some familiar dishes. Stews and chilis, potatoes au gratin or a creamy and rich mashed potato with sour cream and chives. Pot roasts and roast chicken are not only warming but provide ample leftovers at a time of the year when we get really busy and stay that way until January 1.

Thanksgiving and Christmas are the highlights, but there is plenty to be thankful for along the way.

When I think of fall food, it all starts with warm and rich. When the calendar hits October, and as long as we don’t have an extended summer, I start to slowly amp up the calories.

Spaghetti Bolognese makes an appearance, upstaging the light tomato sauce of July and August. Potato dishes take on longer roasting or a blanket of asiago cream, and in some cases croquettes and fritters.

The changes in diet are not without some science behind it. As the weather cools and the days shorten, we revert to a “nesting” phase, staying closer to home and enjoying more time inside than out. Calorie counts rise as the temperature drops in order to build a layer of “insulation” for the hard winter months ahead. We realize quickly that this is a dangerous fallacy as very few of us will be expending those calories every day through manual labor (hence the rise of the gym). That doesn’t matter to most of us as we enjoy heartier meals.

We have plenty of opportunity as well.

Tailgate chili, two major food holidays, an end of the year party and Sunday brunch. No grilled chicken, unless you’re thoroughly committed to the coals, and the idea of a light salad is just that an idea. Give me roasted root vegetables with a creamy goat cheese dressing, or what we switch to at The Sage Rabbit, a seasonal panzanella salad with roasted butternut squash, sage and fig balsamic.

This is food with heft, food that needs some time to develop.

While your lives will only get more harried as we get deeper in, the food we cook and eat takes a slower road, away from the holiday hustle.

Slow Roasted Pork with a Coffee Crust.

This is a new menu item, fast becoming a big favorite. It starts with the cut of pork, a boneless butt, with all its important fat and lean meat layers that when cooked slowly, (5 hours at 350, or until it reaches 185 degrees) melts into the pan. The rub is simple, equal parts of ground coffee, your choice, black pepper, brown sugar, and half the amount of ground coriander and salt. Rub down the pork at least 12 hours before cooking and let it cool overnight to slice it. To serve it sliced, brown it gently in clarified butter and remove to a warm oven. Deglaze the pan with pork or chicken stock, add cream and a bit more coffee rub, and reduce the sauce until it starts to coat the spoon. Off the heat, whisk in a ½ tablespoon of dijon and pour over the pork. We serve it with house applesauce, sour cream mashed potato, and roasted greens

John Foster is an executive chef who heads the culinary program at Sullivan University’s Lexington campus. A New York native, Foster has been active in the Lexington culinary scene and a promoter of local and seasonal foods for more than 20 years. The French Culinary Institute-trained chef has been the executive chef of his former restaurant, Harvest, and now his Chevy Chase eatery, The Sage Rabbit.

To read more from Chef John Foster, including his recipes, click here.

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