Tag Archives: Comfort Food

OK, Eat

The prudent course of action would have been go straight home and to bed after her train arrived: Monday had had a very early start (for a doctor’s appointment) and a very late finish (after a theatre performance). But we were not prudent.  There were some groceries and staples we needed that hadn’t been on sale yet–because we’d made a shopping list from next week’s supermarket ads–so we headed to the supermarket. As we saw the parking lot on the night before a winter storm, we realized it was also the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. The prudent course of action would have been to turn around and go home.  But we still weren’t prudent.  The place was crowded with shoppers just like us, along with those not-quite-frantically snapping up bread, milk, and eggs–because, apparently, the best thing to eat during a snowstorm is French toast.

We found most of what we needed and ignored the rest. Several items we’d come for still weren’t priced as we expected. We’d looked at the right ads, but misread the copy, and some things still weren’t on sale. It turns out that pork loin can be a Black Friday special, as easily as a big-screen TV.

It wasn’t so much later than usual when we arrived home and got everything unpacked, but it seemed that way. Despite just returning from the supermarket we hadn’t planned dinner. Emergency measures were needed: boxed mac-and-cheese to satisfy her, with extras alongside to keep me happy and use some things that might have spoiled otherwise. Even with that simple plan, I was scattered, the cats (who also wanted their dinner) were underfoot, she was working in the kitchen too, and the whole evening felt one dropped spoon from being a disaster.

Although it seemed to take hours, it was really just a few minutes before the gooey yellow goodness was on one side of our bowls with a few bits of sausage and a big pile of vegetables on the other. Our bodies would be sustained, but our spirits needed help: laughter was now in order. A band we like had released a new video, so we called it up on the big screen; one video led to another, and that one to a third, and then I realized she’d never seen my favorite TV commercial and a behind-the-scenes story about the commercial.  We giggled through dinner and the videos, and the evening ended just fine. The next morning’s snow was much less problematic than predicted–hardly worth the French toast run–and our Thanksgiving travel was smooth and uneventful.

They say to eat before going to shop, but I always thought that was to prevent buying things you didn’t intend to.  I’ll try to remember that it can also be a precaution against kitchen crankiness.

A Tale of Three Soups

From her train ride home, she sent a message requesting tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches.  I liked the idea instantly, even if it did mean the gravy would have to wait for another day.

We stopped at the market to pick up soup.  They didn’t have any, which was disappointing if not surprising. It’s not a market where you can find everything all the time; it has a great bakery, a garden-fresh produce section, their own coffee roaster, a trustworthy fish counter, and a not-particularly-wide variety of excellent prepared foods, but not aisles and aisle of canned goods. On this day, that not-particularly-wide variety did not include tomato soup. We considered some other dinner options and realized that we did in fact want soup and sandwiches, so moved on to the next-closest supermarket–where our tomato-soup options were nearly limitless.  We chose an organic variety with basil and soy milk instead of cream.

She put the soup in a saucepan, set two cast-iron skillets to heat, and set herself to meticulously prepare sandwiches.  I minced the leftover chicken she wanted to include while she spread molecularly-thin layers of the best mustard and mayonnaise perfectly from crust to crust. I’ve never seen a sandwich made with such precision, much less one I was going to get to eat.

The sandwiches were pressed between the two hot skillets for toasting, the soup was ladled into wide-mouthed mugs for sipping, spooning, or sandwich-dipping, and dinner was served: good soup and wonderful sandwiches. We agreed that the soup was a little bland, more like tomato-flavored soy milk. I heated a little bolognese sauce to be added as we each wished. I know that took the soup out of the realm of simple cream-of-tomato, but I was willing to accept the charge of fussiness.  I suggested that, next time, we make soup from scratch.

She looked incredulous.  “It takes seven hours to make tomato soup.”

I wondered how that was possible. She told me about finding a recipe when she was a girl, and asking the aunt she was visiting to teach her how to cook so as to make it. The good-humored aunt helped her slice many pounds of fresh tomatoes, slow-roast them in an oven for four hours, then skin and seed and dice them and simmer them with stock and gently cooked onions and garlic for another two hours, then puree in a blender, and add sour cream and basil before serving.

I admitted that a roasted-tomato soup was probably better than the one I had in mind, but wasn’t sure it was six hours and fifteen minutes better.

Faster Tomato Soup

2 (1 lb.) cans peeled, no-salt-added tomatoes
1 medium onion
1-1/2 T. butter
1-1/2 T. olive oil
A few basil leaves (or 1 tsp dried)
1/2 cup heavy cream

Set a large saucepan over medium-low heat; add the oil and butter.
Coarsely chop the onion, sauté gently until translucent.
Set a strainer over a large bowl, and drain the juice from the canned tomatoes into it.
Cut each tomato in half, then squeeze gently over the strainer to remove seeds, collecting juice in bowl. Discard seeds. (Or don’t; if you want a little more rustic soup, skip the straining.)
When onion is ready, add tomatoes and juice to saucepan and simmer, covered, about 20 minutes.
Add basil, and salt and pepper to taste, and simmer about 5 minutes more.
Remove from heat and add cream.
Puree, using an immersion blender.
Serve with croutons or, better, grilled cheese sandwiches.

I can’t find her roasted-tomato soup recipe online, and she doesn’t still own the cookbook from which it came.  I believe her, of course, about the long roasting and simmering, but I wonder about investing that much cooking time–especially not with a hot oven in the height of summer when fresh tomatoes are abundant–to get tomato soup. Who knows? Maybe it is that much better. Some night we might consider the relative merits of various grilled cheese sandwich preparation methods, too.  And, maybe, next summer, we’ll have a taste test.

The Best Medicine and the Bedtime Snack

It was another late evening.  She’d had an unexpected hour-long interruption in her workday, which meant rescheduling a tech-support appointment and taking a much later train.  Worse still, the support was unsupportive; and, worse than that, the lack of support came from a company known for products that don’t need support because they just work. 

She stood at the refrigerator, displaying classic signs of a terrible trifecta: tired, hungry, and indecisive.

“Eggs and grits?” I asked.

“You don’t have to make me dinner.”

No, but I could start the process, and that might help.  I took the jar of grits from its shelf; she brought the eggs from the refrigerator and took over. I looked for something that would make us both laugh. (My day hadn’t gone so badly, except for a frustrating recording session in which I proved less-than-able to sing on pitch; in any event, no day is so good that it can’t be improved by laughter.)

“Could we have more episodes of the game show?”

I had something else in mind, a segment I’d read about from a comedy news show. A segment about Ayn Rand, of all things.  She wasn’t sure it would be funny. I haven’t read Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead, but I know we both like this show’s smart writing and delivery.  She gave me a crash course in objectivism as we took our bowls upstairs (my eggs topped with a dab of her well-traveled salsa). One video led to another, and unhappy hours were forgotten.

Some days end with ice cream and poetry; some, with scrambled eggs and late-night TV.  Sometimes, we don’t want a snack at all. When the day’s cares are set aside, dreams are all the sweeter.

You Can Bet on It

On the way out of the theatre one night last spring, she asked, “Can we order pineapple fried rice?” Of course we could, but, knowing the contents of the City House fridge, I bet her that I could make pineapple fried rice faster than we could have it delivered.

Fried rice is, after all, a way to use leftovers.  You can’t really call it pineapple fried rice if there’s no pineapple and no rice, but aside from that almost everything is a variable. There are plenty of recipes for authentic pineapple fried rice, but they don’t agree with one another. It’s perfect for improvisation.

Sauté some onion. (If you’ve got scallions, great; sauté the white and keep the green aside.)

Chop something green. (Peas are common to many recipes, but not all; if green beans are on hand, go for it.  If broccoli or brussels sprouts are all you’ve got, use less–unless you’re making this dish for me, in which case the more the merrier.) If there’s some red bell pepper around, dice and add it, too.

Bring on the leftover rice.

Add soy sauce and tomato paste–maybe a teaspoon of each, and a generous splash of pineapple juice.  If you keep fish sauce around, maybe half a teaspoon.  Stir everything to combine.

As for protein, what’s on hand? A piece of leftover chicken?  Half a pork chop? A few shrimp, a bit of beef, whatever.

Oh–and an egg. You can beat it first, or simply crack it over the pan and stir it in.  Then some pineapple. Fresh is best, of course, but canned will do; I prefer chunks, but crushed offers more bite-homogeneousness.

If you live at the Country House, there are cashew pieces in the fridge for making granola. (If not, there may be peanuts, even if only a couple packets you brought home from a plane flight.) Toss them on top, with the green bits of scallion. If there’s a lime handy, serve a wedge of it alongside and squeeze the juice in tableside.

Serves two for a late supper, or one, with leftovers for lunch.

This version is not authentically Thai, but neither are we. It is cheaper than delivery–and has a lower carbon footprint. Also, you don’t have to put on a robe to answer the door. And it cleans out the fridge.

She planned to rush home yesterday to work on some gardening in whatever daylight was left. Since I wouldn’t be home at dinnertime and
knew she’d be tired, I prepared a batch of inauthentic pineapple fried rice and left it for her in the fridge.

Mums, Sedum, and Hens-and-Chicks are not the traditional accompaniments to fried rice, but when the recipe itself is inauthentic, they do nicely.  At least to make the table festive.

Mums, Sedum, and Hens-and-Chicks are not the traditional accompaniments to fried rice, but when the recipe itself is inauthentic, they do nicely. At least to make the table festive.

I don’t remember the stakes of last spring’s homemade-vs-takeout wager, but I won. And I know what’s for lunch today.

When Delays, Doubles, and Failed Plans are Just Right

Things don’t always go as planned.

Boxes are unpacked right away, but then piles of indecision clutter the surfaces. Items are carefully re-boxed and placed for the local thrift store to collect, but then they don’t want your extra sofa after all. Contract painters show up four days early and do a lovely job, creating an unexpected construction zone for weekend entertaining.

He was a saint on Friday night, when the long hours, longer commutes, and lack of order finally took their toll on my good humour. The unplanned meltdown was ugly. The picking up and going on was beautiful – suffice it to say that the bedroom, guest room, and living room are all finally pleasant spaces to relax in.

On Saturday afternoon, we put together a stew for our guests – friends stopping over with us on the sad occasion of traveling to a funeral. Comfort food seemed called for.

A three-pound rump roast was cubed, dredged in flour, and seared. A trio of red onions were diced and cooked in the half-drained drippings, collecting the flavorful leavings and warming their bite. A few ribs of celery, a handful of carrots, and a minced bell pepper were added then the beef was tossed on top.  Seasoned liberally with oregano and bay leaf, with two dozen whole peppercorns thrown in for good measure. A palmful of kosher salt. Half a bottle of dry red wine.

(He drank a glass, proclaiming it “good” and “very dry”. I can’t stand the stuff; I take my grapes in a sugary cocktail, thanks.) Four cups of well seasoned mushroom stock were poured over all, then the lid went on and the Dutch oven went into the actual oven while we got back to work.

Six hours later, the beef was tasty but the broth was inconsistent in appearance and flavor. We set the oven to “warm” and left the pot alone overnight.

By Sunday morning, the meat and vegetables were fabulous, but the broth was still a mess – so I set out to repair it.

Solids were scooped from the first Dutch oven, drained, and placed into a second one. The liquid was painstakingly ladled into his grandmother’s gravy strainer, one cup at a time, and left to rest for twelve minutes.

When the oily bits had risen to the surface, every speck of fat was discarded and the good stuff was saved into a saucepan. Two hours later, with “the good stuff” fully assembled, the now fat-free broth was brought to a low simmer and thickened with corn starch – then poured over the meat and vegetable bits. The whole lot was brought back to temperature, covered, then placed back in the 200 degree oven to stay happy until our (delayed) guests arrived.

When they did, baked red potatoes were roughly chopped and placed into shallow bowls. Stew was ladled over top. Seconds were served, along with still and sparkling wines, ginger ales, and plenty of ice cream at dessert.

It couldn’t have been better if it had gone according to plan; there aren’t any leftovers to photograph.

Sometimes doubles aren't awful.

I’m glad to have kept both Dutch Ovens – one enameled, one not.

Acquired Tastes

Thursday is choir night, and we still haven’t worked out that load-the-slow-cooker-at-noon thing such that dinner is ready when she gets home. She picked up something called “chicken fries” when she stopped at the market for the milk we needed for breakfast. I’m not sure if “chicken fries” are as closely related to McNuggets as they sound, but I’m not going to worry about it now.

I had the same choir-night dinner I’ve had for ages: after the choir room is set up and the night’s music has been practiced, I have a half-cup of yogurt, whatever fruit is handy, and some of our Really Good Granola sprinkled on top. It’s easy to fix, it’s light, and since there’s as much fruit as yogurt, the combination isn’t too gloppy on the vocal cords.

The thing is, although this has been my Thursday quick-supper for a long while, I can remember when I didn’t even know what yogurt was.  And then I knew, but I hated it.  (My first taste of yogurt was in the college cafeteria.  I thought it was pudding.  I nearly did a spit-take. I did not try it again for years.)

Apparently it was an acquired taste. I don’t remember when I acquired it, but I did.  Along with lots of others.

Steel-cut oatmeal. (Hated oatmeal growing up.)

Fish tacos. (What on earth is a fish taco?)

Cheese (the kind that isn’t pre-sliced and covered in plastic).

Beets.  Tomatoes. Coffee.

These things aren’t just acquired tastes, they’re positively comforting to me now. (Well, maybe coffee isn’t so much comforting as a requirement for consciousness some mornings. And afternoons. And the occasional evening.)

I wouldn’t combine them all in one meal, but if I had to plan a month’s worth of meals, they’d all be listed. Chicken fries might not make the short list, but if choir rehearsal runs a little long and there are leftovers when I get home, who knows?

Manhattan Pancakes

She’d had a rough morning, I’d had a rough afternoon, and breakfast-for-dinner seemed the only way to go.  She replied to my iMessage asking what she’d like:

Ooh! Pancakes? Plain, topped with peanut butter and butter?

I agreed.  It was, in fact, what I was hoping she’d choose.

Meanwhile, knowing that comfort food was on the horizon, I posted jokingly to Facebook that I was having pancakes, and wondered

…what’s an appropriate wine to pair with them. Or perhaps the best hard spirits. Or both.

My friends enthusiastically rose to the challenge.  Suggestions included hard cider (apple or pear), moonshine, beer, various German wines and a couple of sparkling wines, blueberry schnapps, and “honey-infused rye whiskey.” This bunch clearly takes their pancakes-and-drinking seriously.  Or maybe they were just ready to help a friend in need.

The comment stream amused her as much as it had done for me, but that “infused” comment made her sit up and take notice: “We could just pour bourbon over the pancakes.”

All of a sudden I was in the act, too.  “Wait–what if we made some simple syrup…”

“…and added bourbon!”

Now, neither of us is really a drinker. I can mix a Manhattan, split it into two glasses, and there’ll be some left in each glass at the end of the evening. But, as with the one-spoon-sundae that has become a favorite dessert, sometimes just a little taste is enough.

There was no bourbon in the cupboard after all, so she flavored the syrup with rye and a splash of scotch. I mixed batter and heated the griddle. One pancake got the last of a batch of homemade maraschino cherries (the kind where real cherries have been infused with maraschino liqueur, not the candied-and-dyed fakes). We cooked some sausage, deglazed its pan with a little more rye and thickened it with a bit of butter, and drizzled that sauce over the sausage. All the while, she sang Don McLean’s “American Pie.”

“…drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry,
and good old boys were drinking whiskey and rye…”

Nobody got over-served.  We each had just a bit of the sort-of-cocktail syrup over very fluffy pancakes. Even so, neither of us was driving anywhere. The miserable parts of our days faded away in the giddiness of doing something silly in the kitchen, and in its unusual and tasty result.

“Who needs ‘American Pie,'” she asked, “when you’ve got cake!”

There’s quite a lot of the syrup left, but we’ll probably save it until we’ve both had a really good day at work.

Breakfast for Dinner for Grownups

Breakfast-for-Dinner for Grownups