It's in the Blood: A Winter's Tale

Winter in the Florida Panhandle is not severe, but it's not the tropics either, not even the subtropics of South Florida. Temperatures can drop into freezing -- the dreaded frost that I remember orange-grove owners fearing. And even when they don't, it can get chilly enough to trigger an appetite for cold-weather comfort food, a learned response in the case of this tropical boy.

Chili? An American classic of Mexican inspiration, or at least from that part of the States that was once Mexico. Reworked through American kitchens, it became chili-mac, which I learned to eat in the Midwest: a basic chili with pasta cooked into it and topped with cheddar or American cheese. I haven't had any in decades, since I discovered the great red and green chilis of New Mexico, sans beans and made the eponymous color by the use of either the red or green peppers of the region, midly hot compared to others.

Spanish bean soups are another matter. I just made a caldo gallego from a Spanish cookbook. Not the meat-heavy soups my mom used to make, what a Galician restaurateur told me was what immigrants from impoverished Galicia to more prosperous Cuba concocted once they had enough cash to indulge in plentiful tocino, chorizo, ham and so on. Mine was semi-austere: white beans, ham bone, Tuscan kale, potatoes, one chorizo (the book said it was optional), and, of course, unto, the great rancid lard of Galicia that gives caldo gallego its distinctive aroma and flavor.

Stews too are winter food. Back in Cuba we only made carne con papas, literally meat and potatoes. I prefer French stews without spuds. I made a daube from Saveur, my favorite food mag, that called for carrots and parsnips, onions, mushrooms, brandy (preferably Armagnac, which I did not have, though I did use French cognac), and, at the end, some dark chocolate. This gave me the comfort of a beef stew and a chocolate cake at the same time, and though admittedly tasty, it did confuse my tastebuds.

All kind of highly caloric French dishes call me when it gets cold. A traditional chicken fricassee, so different from the fricase de pollo I grew up with, that calls for pearl onions, white wine, possibly a touch of brandy, and obscene quantities of cream and butter. This is the old French cooking and damn if it's not satisfying. Rabbit in mustard sauce made with creme fraiche is also calling me, though I would like to find locally raised rabbit. There's a Resnais film in which Gerard Depardieu gives an inmpromptu dissertation on the dish and it comes to my mind whenever I think of making it. Also a serendipitous meal on the road to Paris, on a Sunday when everything in all the towns I passed was closed, as was one restaurant where I begged the family to serve me the meal they were sharing after closing their establishment in midafternoon. It was lapin and it was delicious. There were other delicious aspects of that trip, but a gentleman never tells.

Back to the Spanish table, cocido madrileno is definitely on my winter menu. But to those of us of DNA from Asturias, the big comfort dish is fabada asturiana. Morcilla -- blood sausage -- is the ultimate winter foodstuff, derived as it is from the blood of the matanza, the winter slaughter of farm animals, I don't much care for vampire movies, never got the erotic thrill of sucking blood. But for some savage reason blood sausage, disgusting as it should be, hits some primal spot, some hidden memory of a primitive drinking the blood of the animal he has killed. Not that far off in history, Irish countryfolk bled a cow to draw sustenance and still keep the animal alive. The Irish are Celts, so are the asturianos in my bloodline (aptly named). Fabada asturiana, with its big white beans like dry limas and its morcilla calls me back to something ancestral, carnivorous and violent.