Comfort Cooking

   It’s a rare opportunity for me to be able to spend an entire day cooking. Living alone, I don’t get a lot of chances to prepare those “all day meals” that we all have memories of: Mom in the kitchen, stirring pots and basting delicious smelling things in her oven. The only time I get to do that, really, is on holidays, and now that we’re sharing cooking duties between the three of us (my mother, my sister-in-law and myself), that chance to spend an entire day surrounded by pots full of comfort-y goodness are even more few and far between.

   I love to cook. I used to tell people that I love to bake, but the truth is, applying heat to any kind of food makes me warm and fuzzy all over, head to toe. Hearing compliments of “this is yummy!” is great, but I don’t even need that. Biting into something delicious tasting, and knowing I got to put my heart and soul into that dish – that is satisfaction enough.

   When I moved into my apartment nearly two years ago, I decided that I was going take time out of my schedule and make those big, comforting meals for myself once or twice a month. Unfortunately, finance troubles and the addition of my Celt’s mother’s delicious Sunday dinners have kept me from fulfilling my promise too often. A few Sunday’s ago, however, with the long weekend and holiday making it possible to spend an entire Sunday in my kitchen, I decided that I would spend the day turning beloved ingredients into beloved comfort foods.

   I started the day, like I do on most days off, with an odd sort of brunch. Most people, when I explain the ingredients, look at me funny and tell me that there is no way that can be good. But once they’ve had it, they often tell others about it, using the phrase “Sounds gross, but really, it’s delicious!”

   Orange Potatoes for one: 1 large baking potato, chopped; ¼ of a large onion, chopped; three slices of bacon, chopped; one ounce of any kind of cheese you like (I used provolone, here, but I prefer munster or sharp cheddar), 1 tbsp light sour cream, and ½ tsp chipotle in adobo sauce puree.

   On any given week, I eat this doctored mashed potato concoction two to three times. It’s filling, actually rather low fat and calories for two meals (once I eat this, I don’t usually eat lunch), and fills you up like nothing else. It’s spicy and sticky and good for the soul, like a hug from an old Mexican grandmother. And it certainly gets a day of comfort cooking off to a good start!

   Next, I gathered together ingredients to make cookies. I’m not sure there is a better quintessential comfort food than chocolate chip cookies. And in my family, peanut butter is a very close second. What better way to enjoy a day of comfort cooking (and comfort eating) than to combine two very delicious comforts?

   Peanut Butter Chocolate Chunk Cookies: 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour; 1 tsp baking soda; 1 cup (2 sticks) butter or margarine, softened; 1/2 cup chunky peanut butter; 1/2 cup granulated sugar; 1/2 cup packed brown sugar; 1 tsp vanilla extract; 1 large egg; 11 oz chocolate chunks

   I have to admit, as much as I love cooking for myself, I made these cookies (and the banana bread that follows) for other people. The cookies were a treat for the Celtlings, because of the special holiday. I try to make them something like this once a month or so, because, aside from their dad and their grandma once or twice a week, they don’t get a lot of home cooking. And I do truly believe that one of the best ways to show love is to cook for someone you care about. And I care about those kids very, very much.

   I couldn’t have a day of comfort cooking without making something that I’ve made so often in the two years since I met my Celt that I can list the ingredients without looking up the recipe: banana bread, the backbone, and staple of my comforting cooking repertoire. I joke that I’m not allowed into the car on our way to SCA events without a loaf (which is mostly true), but my love affair with banana bread started when I was a child. My mother made banana bread for a long time (in fact, I think I kind of usurped her as queen of bananas) and the smell of it baking in her oven was enchanting. When you put a slice of that break in your mouth, fresh from the oven, wet with melted butter, you know you’ve bitten into something truly magical.

   Banana Bread (one loaf): ½ cup of vegetable oil; 1 cup of sugar; 2 large eggs; 1 tsp vanilla or black walnut extract; 3 medium overripe bananas (I make this so often, that I’ll buy six fresh bananas at the store and throw them right into the freezer); 1 ¼ cup flour; 1 tsp baking soda; ½ tsp fresh ground nutmeg

   These two particular loaves baked on my day in the kitchen were thank you gifts. One for my Celt, who helped my work by doing some free physical labor — I don’t even need to ask what to get him as a thank you gift anymore. I’m waiting for the day when he gets sick of it and asks for something else. And the second loaf was for my brother and sister-in-law, who gave up their time to come and feed and coddle my little furry buddy while I was in Kentucky. When I asked my brother what he would like, there was no hesitation in his voice when he exclaimed, “Banana bread, please!!”

   One of my favorite food writers, Anthony Bourdain, loves to ask the question “If you were on death row, about to die tomorrow, what would you request as your very last meal?” I finished up my day of comfort cooking with mine: pot roast over mashed potatoes, with yellow corn. This is another delicious cross-over from my mother’s kitchen to my own, a Sunday dinner classic. One of the first purchases I made when I decided to learn to cook (I was 24) was a ceramic-coated, cast iron dutch oven. I spent $60 on a small one, and have never once regretted that purchase.

   Pot Roast (for two): 1 pound angus beef shoulder; 5 large button mushrooms, sliced; salt and pepper; dried basil, oregano, celery seed (and a pinch of fennel seed) to taste, one large onion, sliced; olive oil, and 4 cups of beef stock (not broth)

   The ingredients, in this case, are great, but I think the dutch oven makes all the difference. It gives a great crust on the meat, gives good flavor to the onions and the mushrooms, and lets the magic happen during the brazing process. Nothing comes out of that dutch oven that doesn’t taste incredibly good, no matter what it is. I tell everyone who’ll listen that they need a dutch oven in their kitchen. It’s better, in my eyes, than a crock pot, and so easy to use and clean (especially if it’s ceramic coated). I’ll never be without one, no matter how poor I am, and I will continue to view food that comes out of that thing as the most comforting food ever.

   During one episode of Anthony’s show, No Reservations, he asks a group of guests if they feel like Americans need to know how to cook, with as many good restaurants as we have here, and our penchant for eating boxed, and frozen meals. The consensus at the table was that, yes, we should. Someone even mentioned that some of our earliest memories as children begin with food, watching mom or dad or grandma cook for us, and knowing that they were doing it because they love us, and want to comfort us.

   I wholeheartedly agree with this ideal. I think everyone should know how to cook, at least a little, and take comfort in the warmth, and comfort you can give yourself, or others, by completing a great meal. Even if it’s as simple as burgers or a grilled cheese sandwich, that little effort you put into something like that speaks volumes. And you should never underestimate how much better you will feel if you make it yourself.

   So I say, cook on, America. Do it for yourself, do it for your loved ones, but do it. Food is essential to our well-being, our souls, and our bonds with others. Why not bring that into your own home, your own kitchen. Get in there and make something!

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