Winter may be a relative term in Texas, but brisk weather still means a shortage or outright absence of traditional warm weather crops. Fortunately, chef Robert Del Grande of Houston’s Café Annie and The Grove makes it easy to shelve the tomato-cravings until summer. When winter’s chill is in the air, Del Grande turns to seasonal South Texas crops such as citrus and chilies to add a fresh, lively spark to his menus.
Many home cooks also feel challenged in winter, especially if they live in severe climes or areas where fresh produce is hard to come by. To that end, Del Grande recommends braised meat dishes with beans, and easy-to-find winter crops such as hard squash. He’s also a fan of the most unappreciated of cold-weather vegetables—brussels sprouts and cabbage. “The sturdy compactness of brussels sprouts evokes a sense of winter to me,” he says. “Their flavor can be made so rich, warm, and homey. I love to cook them, or cabbage, in salted water until just tender, then drain and toss them with some extra virgin olive oil or rendered bacon fat. Then just broil or sauté until they’re caramelized.”
Del Grande first learned to cook with the seasons from his Italian grandparents, who maintained a thriving kitchen garden where the young chef kept his own tiny plot. “I thought it was so cool as a kid that you could just plant stuff and it would grow,” he says. “You could pick what you needed for a dish; there was some magic to it. You lose that connection when you see raspberries in a container at the store.”
Del Grande took over operation of the iconic Café Annie in 1980 with his wife and business partner, Mimi. The seasonal menus reflect a bounty of local ingredients and influences. Although he has received numerous culinary awards and is widely regarded as a pioneer of modern Southwestern cuisine, Del Grande is quick to point out that “Southwest” is an overly general term. “I’ve always thought that every part [of the Southwest] has its own regional influences,” he says. “Here in Houston, we have a lot of Mexican culture, which has impacted my cooking. My food is very rustic, as well.”
Del Grande admits that his doctorate in biochemistry was helpful in teaching himself to cook, but he maintains that anyone can achieve satisfying results in the kitchen with a little practice. “Science is based on things happening for a reason,” he says. “Cooking is the same—the technical part is easy. The soulful element comes from learning to develop those indescribable flavors, and that just takes time.”
Del Grande recipes: