Winter in the Hudson Valley of New York means snow, ice, and chilling temps. Along with the bad weather comes closed farm stands and fewer customers. After a beautiful summer and autumn cooking the abundance of local veggies and foraged delights, the life of a chef can get pretty dull. To save my sanity and my business, I invented a dead of winter celebration week called July in January.
In May of 1993, I opened my first restaurant, New World Home Cooking Co, in a 1720 stone farmhouse in the Zena area of east Woodstock, in the upper Catskills, about 100 miles north of NYC. We created quite a pre-opening buzz that spring. I ran weeks of creative and quirky advertising, teasing the audience with mysterious headings like “Jack Sprat and his wife will eat here,” “Watch for upcoming traffic on Zena Road,” and “Reserve as soon as we get a phone.”
My old-school advertising moxie was successful. We opened in late May like gangbusters. Our 50-seat cafe and 60-seat patio were filled with locals, summer tourists, music and art celebs, and most other local restaurant people every night. We worked like banshees to keep up with the demand for our fresh new concept restaurant, American melting pot cuisine. It was exactly what we had hoped for. I created a fun, upscale casual menu that celebrated any and all American immigrant cooking styles. In the mornings, I cruised the countryside, connecting with local farmers for their lovely products long before the term Farm to Table was even thought of. At night I cooked my ass off on the line. I was having lots of cheffie fun.
Immediately after our first Labor Day, the kids returned to school, and the weeknight business fell off dramatically. Thankfully, the weekend business stayed strong as thousands of leaf peepers sojourned to the Catskills for their Woodstock fantasy escapes. I was still cooking with inspiration, and we were doing ok.
However, as the last leaves swirled to the ground by November, so did our business. Without travelers to the area, we had only locals to rely upon to make ends meet. They were loyal and enthusiastic, but there weren’t enough of them. We, along with the other 4 or 5 other restaurants in town, carved up that small pie, slivers for each of us. In case you don’t know, Woodstock’s population swells to about 18,000 in July and August, when all of the summer homes, BnBs, and cottages are booked solidly with city folks, vacationers, and their families escaping the swampy heat of the NY Metro area. However, once the summer season ends, the population drops to just over 5000. We had to fight for every customer. What a revelation that was. That cheffie fun became a struggle for survival.
Our first winter was especially harsh. By early December, the snow started falling. And falling. And falling. It was an unusually snowy El Niño year. Being three miles from the village on a winding country road meant little or no business if the roads were slick and were indeed slick much too frequently. We looked forward to the week from Christmas and New Year for a nice burst of revenue when the city people opened their country houses to celebrate the holidays, but we were thwarted. It snowed three times that week. Arg. By New Years’, the sidewalk from the parking lot to the cafe’s front door carved through about three feet of crusty, crunchy, graying layers of snow.
Undaunted, I was still schlepping to local farms gathering the remains of local winter veggies for my menu, but my brain was getting antsy. How many dishes can I make with butternut squash, apples, and kale, week after week, without losing my mind?? I needed inspiration. I needed attention. I needed vibrancy. I needed money.
I told my wife that I was determined to shake things up.
“Lizzie, this snow is making me crazy!” I told my wife and business partner.
“Well, put on your Darren Stevens cap and come up with something. You’re the marketing guy here,” She responded.
“OK baby, you asked for it” I needed to create FUN.
Sitting in my attic office, staring into space, dreamily looking at the bindings of the cookbooks, the epiphany happened. Catching a glimpse of the worn binding of the Sugar Reef cookbook, I had my answer! I would recreate a week of Sugar Reef, the legendary East Village Caribbean-themed restaurant I managed back in the late 1980s. Sipping a ginger beer, the name came to me as if in a dream; I would market it as July in January!
I built a menu of classic Caribbean dishes. Among them were golden conch fritters loaded with chewy bits of that beautiful sweet sea snail, spicy and crunchy coconut shrimp from scratch with a sweet and musky guava-horseradish sauce, and perfumed and succulent curried goat served with slabs of buttery roti bread. I also featured two dishes that were not your standard Caribbean menu fare, Barbados-style “Bajan” chicken and fish. We also designed the campiest, beachiest drink menu that included many classics; Colorful Rum Punch, Bahama Mama, Goombay Smash, Surfsider and Zombie. I brought in Red Stripe and Dragon Stout beer. We encouraged our already theatrical front-of-house staff to dress up in Hawaiian shirts, swim trunks, and sunglasses. I made cassette mixes of non-stop Island music. July in January week was born.
During the week leading up to the launch, I promoted July in January hard with print ads in the local papers. I also worked out a barter arrangement with our Woodstock radio station and ran a blitz of advertising without laying out desperately needed cash. I drove down to the Bronx Terminal Market and loaded up my old Volvo with as many tropical foodstuffs as possible. Yucca, coconuts, banana leaves, callaloo, scotch bonnets, conch, goat; all the good stuff. I even bought paper beach balls and little umbrellas for the cocktails.
As I was unloading the car, my wife saw how much stuff I had purchased.
“Are you kidding me?” she asked sardonically.
“Yea, I know. Whud’erya’gunna’do? I asked apologetically..
Then I stood my ground. “Go all in or don’t go at all,” I said.
She rolled her eyes and said tersely. “I hope so because you spent all of our cash on hand. We will be floating into this weekend with our fingers crossed!”
“Keep the faith, baby,” I said. I put on a good front, but behind the confident glow, I was shitting bricks.
July in January was a stunning success. We were booked solidly all week! We turned up the heat up to 80F, cranked up the soca, salsa, and reggae music, and rocked the special menu in that tiny kitchen. The staff got creative, even putting on smelly suntan lotion to help create the vibe. Our grade school-age kids even got involved, dressing up like they were going to the beach. My 6-year-old son Willie even exclaimed that his Dad invented a holiday and wanted to go to school in his bathing suit! The local Deadhead/Jimmy Buffet fans were totally buzzing about the fun scene and food at New World. It was a wild week, and it was as busy as the busiest week in mid-summer.
July in January became one of our many event weeks. We ran it for 25 years at my Woodstock location until we closed in 2018 and 11 years in the Albany New World until I left in 2020. Me being me, I am keeping the tradition alive by cooking pop-up dinners in select Hudson Valley venues this January. (Info is on my website )
Here are three Barbados style, or “Bajan” recipes to fire up your winter kitchen.
Bajan Green Seasoning
Green Seasoning is the base for the three recipes below. It’s a specialty of the “Bajans” (BAY-gins) or natives of Barbados. Bajan cooks specialize in flavoring foods with herbaceous, pesto-textured marinades tucked into slits on their cooking surfaces. The UK colonized Barbados, and Anglo flavors have a distinct impact on this seasoning. Sage, Marjoram, Rosemary, and Thyme dance with the Caribbean flavors of scallion, hot peppers, and lime to create a totally unique profile. Think Jerk meets Thanksgiving in Massachusetts. It is so delicious and yet familiar, too.
Make this green seasoning, it can be stored in a container with a tight-fitting lid in the fridge for up to two weeks.
4 scallions, roots removed, chopped end to end
1 medium Spanish onion, roughly chopped
1 green pepper, roughly chopped
1 scotch bonnet or habanero pepper, stemmed and chopped
4 garlic cloves, peeled
1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves
1 tsp black pepper
1 tbsp salt
1 tbsp fresh rosemary, chopped
1 tbsp sage leaves, chopped
1 tsp marjoram, dry
1/4 cup lime juice
Put all ingredients except the lime juice in a food processor and pulse until it is well chopped. Add the lime juice and whizz the machine until it looks like a pesto.
Use this seasoning for the following delicious recipes.
Bajan Fish Fry
If you have ever strolled Baxter Road and enjoyed crazy good fried flying fish, this is it.
4 each 1 lb size branzino, perch, porgy, or trout, gutted and scaled
1 recipe of Bajan Green Seasoning (recipe above)
1 cup or more flour, or for Gluten-free use a 50/50 mix of corn flour and rice flour
Salt and pepper
Oil of choice for frying.
Fresh limes for squeezing on while you eat.
Lay the fish on a cutting board.
Using a sharp knife, cut a series of shallow slashes about ½ inch apart through the skin. Use a small spoon to tuck green seasoning into each of the slits you have created. Flip the fish and do the same on the other side.
Season the flour with salt and pepper to taste.
Dredge the fish in the seasoned flour to coat it completely.
Use a heavy skillet with a lid or a dutch oven for frying.
Add oil 2 inches deep.
Bring the oil to 350F. Use a candy or frying thermometer to check.
When the oil reaches 350F, carefully lay the fish into the oil. Fit as many as you can without touching each other. Fry for 3 minutes, and then carefully turn the fish over. Cook for another two minutes. Remove carefully and lay on paper to drain. (If cooking in batches, after removing the first batch wait for the oil temperature to climb back up to 350F before dropping the next batch.)
The fish can be fried up to an hour in advance. Just reheat briefly in a 350F oven.
Serve with lime wedges and your favorite Caribbean hot sauce.
- Note on safe frying. Millions of people fry at home. It is the best way to get the deliciousness of fried food without worrying about low quality or old oxidized oil used in many restaurants. Frying at home is quite safe if you take the correct steps. A frying or candy thermometer is essential to ensure your oil is at the correct temperature. If your oil gets too hot (above 375F), turn off the heat until it sinks to 350. Also, always have a snug-fitting lid on hand. If, for any reason, your oil flares up, don’t panic. Cover with the lid, turn off the heat, and let it cool down completely before removing it.
Bajan Fish In Banana Leaf Bundles
This recipe is a trendy alternative to frying. Wrapping and steaming in banana leaves impart a great nutty flavor.
1 package of banana leaves, found at most Asian and Latin markets
1 ½ lb skinless red snapper, grouper, or ocean perch filet,
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 stick butter
1//2 cup Bajan Green Seasoning (recipe above)
Cut butter into small pieces and add to the green seasoning.
Add the soy sauce to the green seasoning.
Mix it up.
Trim fish into 2-3 ounce pieces. Make several shallow slices in the flesh. Tuck Green seasoning into the slits you made.
Lay out a 10 x 10-inch banana leaf, shiny side down. You will be working upside down, with the top facing down.
Place a small spoonful of Green Seasoning on the leaf. Put a piece of fish, cut side down on that. Add another small spoonful of Green Seasoning. Top with another piece of fish. Wrap the banana leaf around the fish carefully and tie it with a string.
Repeat with all of the fish and leaves.
Using a Bamboo steamer, Steam fish for 15-20 minutes, unwrap and enjoy.
Alternatively, you set up a baking dish. Preheat oven to 400.
Add ½ inch of boiling water to the dish, Place the fish in the baking dish, not overlapping. Cover with foil and bake for 20-25 minutes.
This is a super delicious way to make the best roast or grilled chicken on the bone.
1 whole 3-4 lb chicken
1/2 cup Bajan Green Seasoning
1/2 stick of butter, cut into small pieces
1/4 cup soy sauce
Mix the butter and soy sauce into the Green seasoning.
Spatchcock the chicken. What is a Spatchcocked chicken, you say? It’s a whole chicken, back removed, flattened out for quicker cooking, either on the grill or in the oven. I
Using Poultry shears or a sharp knife, cut the back from the chicken.
Press the bird flat, bone down, cut shallow slits through the skin, and about 1⁄2 inch into the flesh. Make three or four slits into each breast, one in the thigh and one in the joint that connects the leg and thigh.
Using a small spoon or your fingers, tuck the green seasoning into the slits, making sure a piece, or two of the butter gets in the slits as well.
Season the underside of the chicken with kosher salt generously.
Rub any remaining Green seasoning onto the skin side of the chicken.
Season well with Kosher salt.
Preheat oven to 450F with the convection setting on if you have it.
Put the chicken bone side down in a roasting pan. You can surround it with carrots or pearl onions, but don’t put them under the bird. Let it sit right on the pan.
Bake for about 25 minutes or until it is sizzling hard.
Turn down the heat to 325F and cook an additional 20-25 minutes, or until the thickest part of the thigh registers 160f on a quick read thermometer.
Let the bird rest for 5 minutes before carving it up.
This is not as tricky as it would seem. We are working with fish and chicken, rich herbs and spices, and a little citrus.
White: This is an easy call for me, being an Upstate New Yorker. Go with a well-made dry riesling from the finger lakes, and you will be in heaven. Hermann Weimar, Red Newt, Forge, and Dr. Frank make the perfect riesling for these Bajan party dishes. They have enough body and complexity to snuggle with the herbs and spices without becoming a distraction—the perfect hug.
Red: This can be a little tricky, depending upon the oiliness of the fish you choose. You will be safe with a soft, low-acid red, such as a Spanish Garnacha (Grenache) from Campo de Borja or one of my faves, Quinto do Crasto Duoro from Portugal. Both styles are bright yet soft enough to mingle with the subtle heat and aromatic herbs without overpowering the white proteins. It wouldn’t even be weird to drop a slice of orange into the wine. Hey, It’s just a beverage.
Follow me here once a month and find out about my escapades at http://ricorlando.com