Tag Archives: cooking

Comfort Food

When I started writing this online journal, I didn’t think of it as a food blog.

As it turns out, it’s sort of a food blog. More accurately, it’s a personal blog about happiness and gratitude and family and friends–which, in my mind, often brings us to food. What makes you happy and grateful? What do you do to share happiness and gratitude with your family and friends? My answer to that question: I cook.

For the past few days, we happily and gratefully celebrated the long holiday weekend by borrowing the retreat haven of some of our best friends. We know the place by heart; we’ve been fortunate to be invited there numerous times since they bought it. Familiarity is certainly one of the requirements of a comfort, don’t you think?

We were in the Hudson River Valley–possibly one of the most humbly beautiful parts of our country. There are rolling hills, cows grazing everywhere you look, small villages that were established in the 1600s by hard-working Dutch folks, beautiful views of the river, the cornfields, and the sharpest blue skies to be seen anywhere. The Husband, The Boy, and I arrived on Friday after a long but exciting week for the grownups in the family. One decision I made early in the week was that we would “pack in” everything we needed for our 3+ days of R and R. That plan made it possible for us to rustle up a quick and delicious meal of homemade whole wheat pizzas within an hour of unlocking the door. It also meant that we never needed to leave the premises all day on Saturday. The Husband and I went out for an exhilarating 3-mile walk on the country roads, we relaxed, enjoyed a bottle of wine, and watched old movies. I made shrimp tikka masala for dinner, with jasmine rice and naan bread. Indian isn’t our culture, but the meal incorporated many of the elements that I think are essential for edible comfort: rich sauce, simmered protein, and a starchy base to absorb all the flavors.

I also made French macarons, which probably don’t count as comfort food. However, the movie-set kitchen always motivates me to try something daring.

Sunday, we went to the Rhinebeck Farmers Market, which is open indoors on alternate Sundays in the winter. What a bonus for us that we lucked into a market day! We bought maple syrup (the sap is running early this year due to the season’s mild weather), fresh spinach, yarn (which I did not cook, but which will make a gorgeous scarf), sausage, bread, pastries, and a perfect red onion. I took lots of pictures of the wonderful array of products and produce.

That evening, I made another comfort meal. And again, although Italian isn’t our culture either, how can you go wrong with this menu, and the delicious aromas that emerged from cooking that onion into a sweetened, delectable bread topping? Or the earthy, herb-infused scent of  a  spicy sausage ragu, simmering  in the background? I served the bread and pasta with that beautiful fresh spinach,  and spread the caramelized onion and some fruity rosemary onto fresh bread dough to make a yummy focaccia. . The perfect meal on a winter night. And again, a lot of the same features as the previous night’s meal.

So–what are the necessary elements to a “comfort meal?” Sunday featured pasta and bread (hearty starch), meaty sauce (slow-cooked protein), and a flavorful vegetable. That combination can be re-defined and adapted in countless ways. Macaroni and cheese doesn’t need a protein (unless you’re counting the cheese). Braised short ribs seems to fit the bill in every way. Black beans and rice is an inexpensive and versatile vegetarian option, as are lentils and barley, or polenta with an earthy mushroom sauce. Turkey stew is certainly a comfort meal. These are winter foods, rich with herbs and spices, warm and dense, familiar and filling. Wrap yourselves up, friends. Build a fire, open a bottle of dark red wine, and snuggle with someone you love. It’s all good.

Advertisements

7 Reasons to like winter, even if you don’t really like winter…

I hate being cold.

I know; making a statement like that at the beginning of a post titled “reasons to like winter” seems a bit contradictory. However, I’ve devised a variety of strategies to make winter more than tolerable. Here they are, in no particular order:

1) Wrapping myself in scarves and shawls. Every time I go to New York, I buy at least two faux pashminas from the street vendors. They’re about $5 apiece, which makes them a totally affordable indulgence. I have them in almost every shade. Over the years, I’ve collected a wonderful wardrobe of higher-quality wraps, too: beautiful prints, silky drapey ones, thick cashmere and woolly ones, lightweight splashes of color…they make me feel totally cozy.
2) Soup. Like they used to say in the Campbell’s commercials, “soup is good food!” It’s also a great way to use root vegetables and hearty spices, and to get vitamin-enriched foods into your diet when there’s not much fresh produce around. Today I made a big pot of potato-onion-cheddar. We’ll eat it later this week, with thick bread and maybe even some bacon sprinkled on top. I also made an herbed French lentil soup that we ate tonight with brown rice and a crusty baguette. We are warm all the way through.
3) The hot water bottle. For some reason in our house, we refer to the hot water bottle as “the pig,” partly because it’s an ugly tan color that looks like pigskin. it’s the real old-fashioned kind, made of thick rubber with a screw top. On really cold nights, The Husband fills it with the hottest water from the tap and brings it to bed to warm us up.
4) Flannel sheets. We have them for all of our beds, but we only have one set for each bed, which means that on alternate weeks, we have smooth crisp (chilly) cotton. When we change the sheets and put the fuzzy ones back on, we have a refrain: “Ohhh, the flannel.” Flannel is good.
5) Snowshoeing. I started this activity last year, when my spine condition sidelined me from skiing for the third winter in a row. Since I could use ski poles to balance myself on snowshoes, I was able to get outdoors and engage in some heavy-duty aerobic exercise without risk of further injury. I love it. Astonishingly, this winter we have had no real snowfall, so the snowshoes are still hanging on their hooks in the garage. I sure hope I can take them out soon.
6) Pajamas at dinnertime. In the summer, it feels totally lame to put on pajamas at 6:30 when it’s still light outside. In the winter, it feels completely fine to change out of work clothes and into pajamas as soon as I get home. Eating dinner in PJs, then settling into the couch for an evening is a perfect winter choice.
7) The smell of cold air. Do you know that smell? Crisp, and fresh, and clean? When The Boy comes indoors, his cheeks have that great scent. It’s irresistible. Sometimes, you need to send your favorite people outside just so you can sniff them when they come back into the house.

Alchemy

Colors of Thanksgiving

The bread is rising in the oven right now. The turkey stew is simmering on the stovetop. Even though this is the fifth or sixth day in the past week that the air in my house has hung with the aroma of roasted fowl, it still smells golden in here. Continue reading

Teaching The Boy to Cook

Tonight I made green risotto. I’m sure there’s a recipe out there somewhere for this dish, but here in our kitchen, dinner emerged as the result of a discussion between me and the Boy about what to do with a bright, aromatic bunch of fresh late-season basil.

We make pesto on a regular basis. Today, it just seemed too mundane for us to turn a lovely bouquet into a batch of the same-old, same-old. As an improvisational cook, I am delighted to share a deep enthusiasm and knowledge with my son about the possibilities for a meal. He is developing a strong sense of the way ingredients come together, of the flavors that complement each other, and of the techniques that elevate a simple idea into an elegant presentation.

In the past few years, The Boy has learned knife skills, essential ratios, herb profiles, the uses of kitchen tools, elementary sauce preparations, and complex food profiles. He can make a chiffonade of herbs. He can make a roux, expertly varying the level of color depending on the intensity of the stock he plans to prepare. He can make a marinara sauce and a tomato cream sauce. He is my go-to person for tasting dishes as they simmer, and his recommendations for spicing are spot-on.

He’s an extraordinary apprentice and collaborator, this son of mine. When we pick up our CSA share at the farm, he eagerly suggests ideas for how to use our cornucopia of the week. He enthusiastically tries everything. Last week, we got a really big watermelon in the crate. I decided to make an agua fresca (see below for the super-easy recipe). The Boy was my first taster. Today, we stopped by our excellent local cafe so that I could get a cup of the best latte in town. There was French onion soup on the menu. The Boy had himself a cup, liked it, assessed it, and gave me a full rundown on how we should make our own onion soup (fewer chunky onions, more herbs).

Which brings us back to the green pesto tonight. When I was out shopping this afternoon, I tossed a bunch of fresh oregano into the shopping cart. I told the woman at the wine store what I was making, and she pointed me to a fabulous Montepulciano. Back at home, I pureed the oregano with the basil, a couple of tablespoons of butter, and two cloves of garlic in the food processor. When I mixed it into the simmering arborio rice, the aroma brought both guys from distant corners of the house.

Checking the risotto

The boy (who also knows how to uncork a bottle of wine), followed every step of the preparation. Served with a fresh loaf of bread, some local cider, and the beautiful wine, we had a great comfort meal on a rainy night. Everyone was happy at our house.

Agua Fresca: To start the process, I placed a big metal colander into an even larger metal bowl. Then I removed all the flesh (with seeds and everything) from a large watermelon, and placed it all into the colander. With my hands, I squeezed the juice out of the melon chunks. Once most of the juice had been extracted, I pressed the rest of the pulp against the sides of the colander with a potato masher, then discarded the drained flesh and seeds of the melon. I added the juice of two fresh limes and a pinch of sugar to the juice, then poured the results through a funnel into a glass pitcher. Mixed with seltzer, this makes an easy and refreshing beverage!

Simple Gifts

Tomatoes

I’ve been thinking about tomatoes lately. Not just any tomatoes — I want to write about my grandfather’s tomato garden from my childhood. It’s a truism to say that many memories revolve around food, but it’s also the truth. Here’s some recent evidence to support my claim before I launch into the tomato reverie.

I had the opportunity to prepare an elaborate meal for a group of people last night. The dinner was a delight from start to finish, and the best result was the beginning of new friendships. I think it’s safe to say that it was a memorable evening. Food can do that.

Last week, we celebrated The Husband’s birthday with what has become an annual activity: a trip to one of our favorite beaches, followed by an outrageous meal of fried seafood. My parents joined us, and we ate ourselves silly. We sat in the same booth as last year. We ordered the same combination of clams, shrimp, scallops, and onion rings. Everything tasted exactly the same as it does every year, which was exactly the point, because traditions depend on familiarity. Food can do that, too.

And so, on to the tomatoes.

When I was little, my dad’s parents kept a vegetable garden in their backyard. I know they grew a variety of produce, but I only remember the tomatoes. We spent a couple of weeks every summer in my parents’ hometown, and our vacation (at least in my mind) always coincided with the height of tomato season. My grandfather grew big fruit; beefsteaks, I think. The plants were tied to tall wooden stakes arranged in rows that seemed endless to me. I loved to walk into the middle of the tomato patch and surround myself. The stakes were taller than I was, and the bright orbs extended from my ankles all the way up over my head. The aroma was intoxicating. The heat of the sun, the riot of colors, and the smell of the ripe fruit formed the most intense synesthesia that I have ever experienced. To this day, the smell of a ripe tomato is the purest essence of sunshine that I know.

How is it that my first-generation Irish-American grandfather grew vast quantities of a Mediterranean crop? Even more curious is what he did with his harvest. He made gallons of marinara sauce, slow-cooked over a low heat with peppers, onions, and herbs. We ate spaghetti and meatballs often at their house. We also ate plenty of standard Irish fare as well: corned beef and cabbage, potatoes in many forms, pot roast…but what I remember the most is the rich red sauce that came right out of my summer afternoons. My dad carried that recipe with him into our home. He cooked tomatoes down into a dense pulp in the pressure cooker. I was terrified of that pan, with its rattling bulb on top and the hiss of steam coming out of the valve. My dad would leave it on the stovetop all afternoon on a Sunday. By evening, the whole neighborhood would know what we were having for dinner, as the scent of herbs and tomatoes wafted out the windows. I never ate pasta sauce from a jar when I was growing up, and purchasing the ready-made stuff still feels like cheating to me today, even if it’s a gourmet product from a specialty store.

One of the dishes I served last night was a new invention–gazpacho sorbet. I wanted a sweet but bright-flavored palate cleanser between the appetizers and the entree, and since the menu was Spanish, this seemed like exactly the right choice. When we were reviewing the meal this morning, The Husband commented enthusiastically on the way the tomato flavor burst through. That was the intent. I wanted to distill a childhood memory into a spoonful of happiness. Food can do that.

Color of the Day

Green.

Green Ingredients

Yesterday, the color of the day was most assuredly green.

We arrived home in the afternoon from a fabulous long weekend in Maine with some of our favorite people in the universe, and of course, the question on everyone’s mind was, “What’s for dinner?” The answer was swift and clear: something with salsa verde. What other choices are there, when the fridge is nearly filled with tomatillos? A quick inventory included other essentials: rice, black beans, chorizo, limes, cumin, garlic, tortilla chips…  I made a quick trip to the farm for scallions, a poblano pepper, a bunch of cilantro, and two jalapenos. We were all set. I tossed all the salsa ingredients onto the counter and peeled the tomatillos, then stood back just to admire the various shades of green. The poblano didn’t make it into the “before” photo, because it was already blackening on the range.

The tomatillos, jalapeno (seeded and chopped), the scallions (about half a dozen, rough-chopped), and the poblano (peeled, seeded, and rough-chopped), all got blended together in the Cuisinart. Chef’s Note: Be careful if you’re going to try this procedure at home–it makes a LOT of liquid. I strained the puree and added chopped cilantro and lime juice. Voila! Salsa verde.

The Boy, in the meantime, was at the stovetop, supervising a pot of rice while sauteeing garlic and crumbled chorizo. He added a large can of black beans, a generous pinch of cumin, and some lime juice to the savories and waited for the liquid to reduce. Dinner was basically ready at this point. We opened a bag of tortilla chips, shredded a bowl of cheese, and poured ourselves some refreshing beverages. Green is good.

“Whaddya Got?”

That’s the name of my hypothetical program on the Food Network. I’ve already posted about my fascination with cooking shows , and as many of the entries on this site testify, I am a serious, although completely amateur, home chef.

One of my favorite ways to cook is to survey the contents of the fridge, the cupboards, the freezer, the dry goods…and then think of a way of producing a dish, or even an entire meal, from the items available. This flexibility of thinking is an asset at the end of a vacation or late in the evening on a workday when we need something for dinner!!!! My friend Susan thinks it’s a special talent that I can combine random ingredients, but I just think it’s fun.

Anyway, Susan’s prodding and The Husband’s enthusiasm for my food tinkering have resulted in an ongoing joke/challenge/conversation about my Food Network show. The idea is that you (or some other person) would invite me to your house and leave me in your kitchen. When you come home a few hours later, dinner would be on the table, prepared only from what you have on hand. I think there would have to be some ground rules for a few basic staples to be available (and I think, arrogantly, that if I provided such a list at the bottom of this post, people would always be able to whip up a groovy something), and maybe I’d be allowed to bring some spices and knives, but you get the general concept.

I could have filmed two episodes today. We’re heading home tomorrow after 10 blissful days at our friends’ vacation house, and all week I have been efficiently making use of all the great stuff we got at the farmers’ market and the big farm supermarket. Now, I must admit, my typical challenge would not likely take place in a kitchen that looks like this:

Kitchen

and it wouldn’t usually include the ingredients I had at hand today. Nonetheless, The Husband was quite impressed at my ability to make great use of a bunch of leftovers to produce the lunch and dinner we enjoyed.

Lunch: homemade pizzas du jour:

Pizza du Jour

Pizza #1: Roasted duck with hoisin, goat cheese, and wine reduction sauce. The duck and sauce came from dinner on Thursday, when I made pan-seared duck breasts, mushroom-leek risotto, and the wine sauce. There was hoisin in the fridge, and we had bought a couple of fresh pizza doughs from the market when we went shopping on Monday.

Pizza #2: Ham with grilled pineapple, Manchego, and steak sauce. The ham slices were the last remnants from our deli counter purchase, the pineapple we had grilled several days ago for a Caribbean feast, the Manchego was just a small piece left from Tuesday’s stuffed piquillo peppers, and the steak sauce was on the door of the refrigerator. NEVER underestimate the usefulness of those condiments on the door of the fridge.

Dinner: Merguez ragu with artisanal pasta and warmed sourdough bread: The sausage was in the freezer, left over from the July 4 feast here. I defrosted it, removed the casing, and made mini-meatballs. Canned tomatoes, a parmesan rind, and dried herbs were predictably available to round out the sauce. There was an open bottle of red wine from Tuesday, so a cup of that got splashed in to balance the flavor. The pasta was an impulse buy at the market the other day, but who doesn’t have a box of dried noodles sitting around? The bread was the last half of a fresh sourdough from the farmer’s market. Wrapped in foil and heated up, it was rejuvenated into a perfect accompaniment for the earthy sauce.

Merguez Ragu

Dessert: Mint-Fudge brownies. I found a bar of dark bittersweet chocolate, melted it with some butter, then threw together a basic brownie batter: sugar, cocoa powder, espresso powder, a bit of flour and a lot of eggs. Packaged brownie mix is so completely unnecessary–you barely need a recipe to make them. The Husband had bought some mini-mint patties at the candy store earlier in the week; I tossed those into the batter for a bit of extra flavor, and Voila! Gooey, chocolatey deliciousness.

Brownies!

So…Whaddya think? Would you invite me to your house to cook? Would you allow a film crew to document the process? Would you eat the results?

And here is my List of Things You Should Always Have in Your Kitchen (with obvious exceptions for vegetarians, gluten-free eaters, and those with celiac–I can cook for you, too and I can give you your own list):

  1. Good salt. Fine ground sea salt improves almost everything.
  2. Canned artichokes. I’ll bet you didn’t see that coming.
  3. Decent soup stock–the organic kind that comes in boxes, or a good concentrated paste. It doesn’t matter if it’s chicken, vegetable, or whatever.
  4. A solid hunk of parmesan cheese. It keeps forever. Other cheese is also good.
  5. A variety of sausages in the freezer, unless you’re a vegetarian.
  6. Dried pasta.
  7. Rice. Plain old white is fine, but a variety of rice, which will last for months, is great. Some brown, some arborio, some wild rice…
  8. Canned tomatoes, in any form.
  9. Frozen peas. Shut up. Just keep a bag of peas in the freezer.
  10. Dairy essentials: Eggs, butter (real butter, unsalted), and milk (whatever fat percent you like).
  11. Lemons and limes. At least half a dozen of each, always. Extra citrus is even better.
  12. Basic baking ingredients: Flour, sugar, brown sugar, baking powder and baking soda.
  13. Lentils. Dried lentils can be the base of a lot of excellent dishes, and they take very little time to prepare, especially with some of the items listed above.
  14. Cooking oils–Olive oil, canola oil, and sesame oil.
  15. Onions and garlic.
  16. Potatoes.
  17. Some kind of fresh vegetables. Iceberg lettuce does NOT count. More than one color of vegetables earns you bonus points.
  18. Bacon. I only list this because The Boy and The Husband deem it an essential. And it turns out to be quite versatile.
  19. Dried herbs and spices: Oregano, basil, thyme, cumin, cayenne, cinnamon, rosemary–other stuff is great, too.
  20. Protein: tofu, beans, or meat (which can be kept frozen).

Most of these ingredients can keep for months, are quite inexpensive, and they barely take up any space. And with just this stuff, no matter what else you have in the house, you are so close to a great meal.