Tag Archives: Comfort Food

Taking Stock

We did a freezer inventory on the morning after we got home. (Also one of the pantry, and of the shelves in the garage. We’d made a quick stop at the market on the way home from the airport, but planned no shopping until we cleared the 14-day better-safe-than-sorry-since-we’ve-been-out-of-the-country hermitage. We were in good shape, and would continue to be so, but it’s always good to know what’s where.

I found two bags of chicken bones I was saving for stock. Now is the time. They went straight into the Instant Pot along with some celery, onion, and carrot. I covered it all with water, sealed it up, and let pressure do its thing for an hour. I removed the bits and pieces, turned on the slow-cooker setting, and left it ‘til the next morning. A little straining and a little skimming later, and I had two quarts of really good chicken stock. It felt like insurance against hunger—or, at least, against bland food.

I’ve been using it a bit at a time—for rice, gravy, and whatnot—but there was a quart left. “How about chicken and dumplings?” I asked. “Would it be more like stew than soup?” she replied. I confirmed that it would. She was in. I took out a pair of chicken breasts, crossed them off the inventory, and set them to defrost. I knew I’d have to look up the dumplings recipe to get the proportions right, but the rest would be easy.


Chicken and Herbed Dumplings

Set a quart of chicken stock to warm in a big pot. Check the fridge.

  • The last carrot. Okay, then, one carrot it is. (I added carrots to the grocery list.)
  • A couple ribs of celery. (Plenty of that left; I crossed it off the list.)
  • Half a package of mushrooms that need to be used. Yup.
  • A big, fat onion. Check.
  • A little jar of gravy made from the same stock. Definitely; it’s already got some thickening power. (Barring this, you might want to add a little cornstarch slurry to the stew before the dumplings go in.)
  • A third of a tub of store-bought pesto (divided). This is your time, my friend. A fat tablespoon of it went into the pot—hey, I would have used fresh herbs, but it’s been two weeks since we’ve been to the market!
  • Salt and pepper to taste, and a bit of Worcestershire sauce to bolster the umami.

Simmer until the carrots are not quite tender, then add the chicken, cut into bite-sized pieces, and simmer until the chicken is poached (another 10 minutes or so).

At this point I fed the cats, who had been very patient during all this peeling and chopping and stirring.

I prepped the dumplings, mostly according to The Joy of Cooking, stirring together in a big bowl:

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tbsp baking powder
  • 3/4 tsp salt
  • A good grind of pepper (hey, I said mostly according)

And bringing to a low simmer in a small saucepan:

  • 1 cup milk
  • 3 tbsp butter
  • The rest of the pesto (definitely not part of the original recipe, but what fun to have herbed dumplings!) if you don[t have leftover pesto but like this idea, add some chopped herbs and grated Parmesan cheese to the dumpling dough.

Pour the wet into the dry, stir just to combine, turn out onto a board and knead very slightly. Working quickly and lightly, form into 18 or so balls. Don’t compress the dough.

Lay the dumplings atop the stew, cover, and simmer for 10 minutes.

Serve in warmed bowls, topped with the last bit of parsley in the fridge.


Would I have thought of chicken and dumplings if I didn’t have a quart of really good stock? Probably not. I was kind of in the mood for pizza, but that for another day. Same with the pesto. Resources are not scarce, but it would have been a terrible shame to let that stock go sour, or the pesto spoil. What could have been clean-out-the-fridge night turned into a rich, comforting meal.

I look forward to our next market trip; I really look forward to a day when we can go back to feeling like we can go to the market whenever we please; but, meanwhile, cooking with what’s at hand is pretty much what I do. Knowing that I can might be the biggest comfort of all.

Post-Graduate Work

Ramen Watercolor

It was Saturday morning, and we were making a slow start of it. She was playing a video game on her phone, the cat was snuggled at her feet, and I was reading Twitter.

I was scrolling past the seemingly-endless political stuff, passing the tech news, dodging the ads, when a friend’s retweet caught my eye.

Tweet

I laughed out loud at the thought of it, and showed her, and she laughed, too. “Yours,” she said, would be, ‘I’m going to eat all the Brussels Sprouts.'” And I laughed, because I was thinking exactly the same thing, and made that comment in a reply to the original poster.  The replies got more absurd and delightful. “I’m going to build a water slide in the basement,” one said.

And then women were getting involved, making it clear that it wasn’t only the men who eat less than prudently when they’re alone. One poster suggested she would make Blue-box Mac and Cheese and eat it out of the pan with the spoon she used to stir it. “This is your spiritual sister,” I said. “Nope. This is me!” she replied. By this point it was pretty clear I was going to read the entire thread, even if it meant I got nothing else done.  (She, for her part, had gotten up, dressed, and headed off to an eye exam and a trip to the market.) I kept going, through very specific “eat something stupid” replies, many focusing on chips, pizza, and Ramen noodles.

I haven’t thought about Ramen noodles in ages, but all of a sudden I wanted them for lunch. Sure, it was quick and easy and—most importantly for college students—cheap, not what anybody would call great cuisine, but maybe a little comforting. Sort of like blue-box macaroni and cheese.

I switched over to the shopping-list app and added Ramen noodles and scallions, and dressed to go out for a run.

She hadn’t found the five-packages-for-a-dollar variety. The Ramen she brought home was the real stuff—no MSG-filled flavor packet to be found, which was just fine with me. I hadn’t planned to use it anyway; I was thinking of one of the folks who posted about mixing in “a soft boiled egg, if you want to be fancy.” I didn’t know about fancy, but I did want it to be good.

Post-Graduate Ramen

Serves 1, because you know what she really wants for lunch isn’t Ramen.

1 tsp dried shrimp
3 or 4 cremini mushrooms, sliced
1 carrot, diced
1/2 bell pepper, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1-inch nob ginger, minced
2 scallions, sliced
1 tsp soy sauce
1/2 tsp fish sauce
1/2 tsp sriracha sauce
1/4 tsp sesame oil
1 cup stock
1 package Ramen noodles

In a small bowl, pour a quarter-cup of boiling water over the dried shrimp.

Pour a little olive oil in a skillet and put it over medium-high heat.

When the oil is hot, add and sauté the mushrooms, carrot, and pepper. When the mushrooms are nicely browned and the others have softened a bit, lower the heat a little and add the garlic and ginger; toss, and continue to sauté until the aromatics are, well, aromatic.

Add the soy sauce and fish sauce, toss to combine.

Add the shrimp and their liquid, and the stock. Increase heat until the liquid is at a brisk simmer, then add the noodles and put a lid on the skillet. Cook 2-3 minutes (or per package directions).

Remove and serve, garnished with a few drops each of sesame oil and sriracha, and the chopped scallions.

Ramen

While you are doing all of this, of course, prepare one package blue-box mac and cheese. Offer her the pot, and the stirring spoon to use as a utensil.

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.