From first frost to final thaw, I'm frequently at my stove, overhead fan roaring, dodging spitting oil kicked up by searing beef short ribs, lamb shanks and pork roasts. I drain excess fat from my red cast-iron Dutch oven, add stock, water or wine, root veggies or dried beans, spices and herbs, cover the pot with its heavy enameled lid, put it in a 200 degree oven and walk away.
From North African tagine to French pot-au-feu (literally "pot on the fire"), few dishes make as much sense in winter as one that's slowly cooked. For centuries, scarce, labour-intensive or expensive fuel meant the double duty of domestic fires as a cooking technique was a no-brainer. Left at a low temperature for a long period of time – three to eight hours is common – there comes a divine moment when tough meat fibres soften and pull away from the bone, liquid thickens and vegetables give themselves over to the dish.
"It makes us happy, of course it does. We go right back to the cave," says Elisabeth Luard, author of The Old World Kitchen, a recently re-released cookbook originally published in 1987 as European Peasant Cookery. It holds a range of slow-cooked dishes, including a Belgian hot-pot medley of beef brisket, lamb shoulder and breast and pig ears and trotters, a Lapland recipe for reindeer stew and an ancient Hungarian soup derived from that country's nomadic tribes.
The reason why my beloved cast-iron cookware is round, says Luard, is because fire burns in a circle. "If you're going to keep a pot going, it's not going to be any good if it's square, at least until we got ovens," she says wryly.
"Back then there were two ways of cooking: slow cooking, which was done on charcoal, or fast cooking, which was done on a hot flame. Pots were moved from the hot cooking to the slow cooking, and that was really the only kind of control you could exert."
That's the beauty: A slowly cooked, one-pot dish will not be micromanaged. With approximate cooking times and a taste-at-the-end result, this is about as far from today's Cryovac-packing modernist contingent as you can get. But that doesn't mean it can't be perfected.
According to Jack Bishop, editorial director at America's Test Kitchen, there are three key techniques to successful slow cooking. First, the cut must be a tough piece of meat with lots of connective tissue and collagen, which converts to gelatin between 140 and 180 degrees and that's why the low temperature is important.
Second, be mindful of what vegetables or other starches will join the meat and liquid in the pot. "Throwing everything in at the beginning isn't always the best thing," Bishop said. Some additions, like broccoli or green beans, should be added near the very end.
Last, he says, is the importance of adjusting the flavours at the end. Because the cooking liquid will concentrate over the extended cooking time, it's important to avoid using too much salt in the beginning. With the richness and fattiness of these slow-cooked cuts, a splash of acid – typically vinegar or citrus – followed by a sprinkling of fresh herbs, will refine the dish.
Beyond the mechanics, Bishop agrees there's something viscerally satisfying about low and slow cooking in the wintertime. "There is no better way to make your house more enjoyable than to fill it with the smell of something roasting in your oven," Bishop said. "There are so many forces that are pushing us away from those seasonal rhythms, but winter is one of those times when you're forced to step back. The idea of having a raw tomato sauce in Toronto or Boston or New York in January just doesn't seem right. It's not what your body wants."
Kathleen Trotter has been a personal trainer and Pilates equipment specialist for 10 years. Her website is www.kathleentrotter.com.