Just in case you were wondering, January is National Hot Tea Month, National Slow Cooking Month, National Oatmeal Month, National Soup Month, National Baking Month, and National Fat-Free Living Month, according to the website Foodimentory.  Really cold winter days in Wisconsin often lead to such internet searches, and subsequently I decided to write this blog as I thought about all of them.

I started my food holiday celebrations by finding my slow cooker–which was easy because I had recently used it to make a stew with white beans, pork hocks, pork country ribs, kielbasa and spinach.  I usually disdain having the same food more than one day in a row, and especially the same food for multiple meals in a row, but it was really, really good.  I had seen Jacques Pepin prepare a very similar dish on public television so I can’t pat myself on the back too much.  I was just lucky to remember what he had thrown in the pot.  I ate the stew for days and never tired of it.

Next, I made a cup of tea.  Green tea with just a touch of honey in a green glass mug that has been around for ages and makes just about anything in it taste good.  So I checked off Hot Tea Month.  One down.

Now and again I like a nice warm bowl of oatmeal.  I prefer my oatmeal plain with butter and salt.  My wife likes fried leftover oatmeal.  (It tastes really good cooked in bacon fat.)  I do like the flavored oatmeal packets as well, though, because they are easy and two of them make a nice breakfast (and I learned how to boil water even before culinary school).  Variety packs are convenient, but I don’t know why they continue to include the banana-flavored packets.  But all the talk of oatmeal still didn’t inspire me, so instead of having oatmeal today (or any day this month so far), I had fried hard-boiled egg halves with Muenster cheese toasts and cantaloupe.  So still only one down.

I think almost everyone would agree that a warming cup or bowl of soup would be heartening as part of meal on a day the temperature doesn’t get over ten degrees F.  I have plenty of classic soup ingredients on hand in my fridge and pantry to make really great homemade soup.  This includes dried and canned beans, other legumes, smoked pork products, onions, celery, carrots, potatoes, lemongrass, peppers and so on.  But I feel like grilling something.  There is a special feeling you get when you are the only person outside grilling.  So still only one down.

Winter is also a wonderful time to bake.  The house gets so warm with the oven on and the aroma of fresh-baked food of any sort is intrinsically comforting.  The other day I had the oven going for hours preparing roasted baby potatoes and insanely-priced asparagus spears (why I put them on a class menu in January I can’t say—it leaves me feeling real in-tune with seasonal cooking).  There were variety of other items I baked, too, and the takeaway for me was that sure our home had wonderful aromas for hours, but we didn’t get the bump in warmth from those hours the oven was on.  We have a new induction range and it is very efficient.  I kind of miss the old gas range–except for how it would fill with gas then light with an almost pyrotechnic “WOOMF.”  So far still only one down but I am sure that I’m getting closer.

Moving on with my celebrations, the phrase fat-free living doesn’t leave a lot for me to chew on in my mind.  Even if I add the word vegan to it.  My late friend Miller Young, the self-proclaimed “Baron of Barbecue” in the Metro DC area for years, always said that first and foremost, “Fat carries flavor.”  He was right.  Fat does carry flavor.  But you can create intense and vibrant, or nuanced and subtle flavors with fat-free ingredients.  Or I should say foods free of bad fat.  Herbs and spices, good or better fats such as olive oil, nut oils, avocado oil, and nuts, plus all sorts of fish, offer plenty of opportunities to not only prepare bad-fat-free foods but to enjoy eating them.  Still only one down, but I think I can still bring it all together for a big finish!

Now that I have finished my tea, I would like to share a couple of recipes that I have enjoyed creating to celebrate all of these January Food Holidays.  Please try them out and let me know what you think!

So there, January Food Holidays are covered.  I will try to limit fat as much as tastefully possible.  My Dad had a wonderful way of getting around his dietary restrictions.  He would have just a taste or very small amount of the forbidden foods.  That way he wouldn’t crave them.  He always managed to have his cake and eat it too.

Chef Joel

Fat-Free Slow Cooker Chicken and Oatmeal Soup

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, finely diced
2 carrots, peeled and cut as desired
1 large stalk celery, cut the same size as you cut the carrots
2 tender stems broccoli, peeled as need and cut the same size as the other vegetables
3 cloves garlic, minced
½ teaspoon dried thyme
½ teaspoon dried basil
2 bay leaves
1½ pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs, trimmed of fat and diced
8 cups chicken stock or broth
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup steel cut oats (or more if you want a thicker soup)
Broccoli florets, from the stems

Method:  Turn the slow cooker on high and add the oil, onion, carrots, celery, broccoli stems, garlic, thyme, basil and bay leaves.  Stir everything well to coat with the olive oil.  Add the chicken thighs, stock and season with salt and pepper.  Cover and let come to a steaming simmer.  The length of time will depend on your cooker and altitude.*  Once the vegetables are tender, add the oats and broccoli stems. Cook until the broccoli is tender and the oats cooked.  Taste to see if it needs more salt and pepper.

*The cooker I used took almost four hours to start bubbling around the edges then another hour to get to the point where I could say it was boiling.

Oatmeal Drop Biscuits

1½ cups flour
1 cup quick oats
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon maple syrup
1 cup unsweetened almond milk or low-fat/fat-free milk

Method:  Heat the oven to 375 degrees.  Place the flour, oats, baking powder and salt in a bowl.  Mix well and then make a well in the center of the mixture.  Add the maple syrup and milk.  Stir to combine then place spoonful on a parchment lined sheet tray.  Bake 15-18 minutes or until golden brown on the bottom and lightly browned on top.  Enjoy with the soup.