Heat, and more specifically fire, has brought survival and safety to our region since the first Valley inhabitants felt cold and hunger. The calm that comes from watching yellow-orange flames lick and char the stone edges of a fireplace in mid-winter, especially when paired with the fragrance and crackling of roasting meat and vegetables, is coded into our DNA. Still today, as our bodies shiver for five cold months a year, struggling to maintain a healthy 98 degrees, we become adept at harnessing this vital element, in all its modern and primitive forms, to build layer upon layer of pleasure in response.
Chefs, bartenders, interior designers, and other masters of taste and ambiance furnish our cold winters with molten stews, toasty cocktails, and rugged textures, creating a depth of comfort that can only come from contrasting extremes. In the spirit of sharing we have collected some of their thoughts and secrets here.
The setting of Michael Kelly’s Liberty Street Bistro, located on its namesake street in Newburgh, takes on a particularly Dickensian vibe in the winter months. The slush-filled old street, lined with ornate row houses, iron gates, and historic monuments, perched on a bluff overlooking a frigid Hudson River, urges brisk walkers to find a welcome reprieve from the cold.
Inside the Bistro, steaming plates spread across the tables of the dining area fog the front windows, creating the warm, insulated capsule patrons are looking for. Kelly’s go-to kitchen technique to bring heat through the winter is braising, which is, as he describes it, “the primordial version of modern cooking; it is so classic it pre-dates modern times.”
The technique is well suited to cooks and customers alike in the winter because the process, done right, can involve up to 10 hours in front of the warm flame. The searing caramelization of the meat and vegetables, followed by a deglazing with rich wine and a slow reduction with the added stock creates a penetrating dish that eradicates even the deepest layers of chill. Kelly changes his menu frequently and can’t predict which braises will be on the menu during a given week, but he tells us he is eager to do a lamb braise, a coq au vin, or a beef bourguignon this winter.
Though most of the heat at Liberty Street Bistro comes from the back-of-house, the bartenders get to play with fire, too. The process for their Ritz 2.0 cocktail — named for the historic theater and event space around the corner —involves setting flame to a rosemary branch and trapping the smoke to fuse it with Gordon’s Gin, Lillet Blanc, lemon juice, simple syrup, and then more rosemary smoke to top it off.
Across the river in Beacon, one of the region’s coziest nooks can be found in The Roundhouse. Panoramic views of snow-covered mountains in the distance and ice-cold streams raging beneath the brick industrial building contrast with a steadily glowing fire in a cocktail lounge outfitted with accents like leather Eames chairs, live-edge wood tables and deer antlers. In the adjoining restaurant, Executive Chef Walter Hinds warms bellies with his take on the ultimate peasant rib-sticker, cassoulet. Traditionally, the French dish consists of a white bean casserole with ingredients like duck confit, sausages, bacon, aromatic vegetables, and more, all kept piping hot under a bread crust. Hinds says cassoulet requires chefs to employ flawless technique, as they must build layer upon layer of flavor. Although a master of French cuisine, he plans to create a Hudson Valley version of cassoulet this winter, substituting black-eyed peas for white beans, Andouille sausage for garlic sausage, and reversing the cooking techniques for duck and lamb. It’s not a 30-minute meal, but cassoulet is the ultimate reward after a day of trudging through the snow.
Travel north along the river to Zak Pelaccio’s Fish and Game in Hudson for more cavern-style winter comfort. A walk down the city’s streets will lead you to an arched entryway lit by gas lamps. Indoors, the dark colors, rich textures, and low ceilings wrap around you like a wool blanket. The stuffed boars and birds adorning the walls, glimmering in the light of a raging fire, make you feel as though you have just stumbled into a magical hunter’s lodge.
Fish & Game Photos by Teresa Horgan
Pelaccio’s winter provisions include a lamb, which is spit-roasted in the open fireplace, where it can shamelessly tempt on-looking diners. The rendering fat from the lamb dripping down over a steel trough filled with parboiled and peeled potatoes is an irresistible spectacle. The potatoes soak up the smoke from the logs in the fire and assume the succulent flavor of the lamb. For an appetizer, order the crab omelet with slowly steamed eggs — slathered with sauce made from chilies, juices from the bodies of blue crabs, crab roe, butter, and garlic — and served with shimonita onions charred in the fireplace embers.
The long, cold winter may be something to embrace, or even show gratitude for (dare we say), as our region’s best have used it as a backdrop to bring delicious heat into our lives.