By Francine Mathews
My family is sick to death of the phrase Food is Love. I trot it out on numerous occasions: when my son texts a picture of the grilled salmon his girlfriend left plated for him after his first day of work; when I spend three days shopping and preparing dinner for ten; or when I anxiously await the return of a kid from college, so I can finally grill his cheese sandwich again. I love recipes and cookbooks and great seasonal produce and perfect cuts of meat or fish. When I travel, I look forward to sampling new cuisine as much as new countryside. The characters in my books connect at tables over meals. I research food for every period and setting I employ in storytelling.
And when crisis strikes, I hole myself up in the kitchen.
A profound emptiness or grief at one’s core can sometimes be soothed–although never cured–by stirring a pot. Nora Ephron realized this fully, of course, in her quasi-fictional memoir Heartburn, but it’s a truth that can’t be repeated too often. Ephron’s touchstone in those pages is rice pudding, the dish that returns us to the nursery. My favorite recent cookbook, however, is Ruth Reichl’s My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life (Random House, 2015). Reichl is known the world over as a restaurant critic and cookbook author, but this volume chronicles her shock when the magazine she edited, Gourmet, was summarily shut down in a Conde Nast purge and the entire food community she’d cultivated was put to the sword. The book reads like a diary of her recovery, punctuated by Reichl’s abstractly-composed tweets. The recipes are rarely time-consuming or intimidating. They’re about comfort and impulse and reconnection with living.
There have been too many types of loss, and too many who’ve experienced them, in 2017: floods and fires and the crushing force of 130 mph winds, madmen with automatic rifles and trucks driven out of control, and even, God help us, the resurgence of bubonic plague. For my part, the year has brought a handful of untimely deaths of people I loved. A good meal cannot end grief or avert chaos. But it can comfort. It can assuage. It can remind us that warmth and light and flavor remain in the world. And some days, that’s enough.
Here are a few of my favorite comfort foods, for when the blizzard is raging or the wolf is at the door.
Ruth Reichl’s Diva of Grilled Cheese (My Kitchen Year, p. 86)
Gather a group of shallots, leeks, scallions and an onion red, yellow, or white–as many members of the allium family as you have on hand–and chop them into a small heap. Add a minced clove of garlic. Grate a few generous handfuls of the best cheddar you can afford (Montgomery is particularly appealing), set a little aside, and gently combine the rest with the onion mixture.
Butter one side of thickly sliced bread and heap as much of the mixture as possible between the slices. Spread a thin layer of mayonnaise on the outside of the bread (this will keep it from scorching on the griddle). Press the reserved grated cheese to the outside of the bread, where it will create a wonderfully crisp and shaggy crust, giving your sandwich an entirely new dimension.
Fry on a heated griddle or in a skillet about 4 minutes a side, until the cheese is softly melted.
TO WATCH RUTH MAKE IT: https://youtu.be/n90HIGDiZNE
This is one of the simplest dishes ever. And it is phenomenally flavorful, deeply satisfying, feeds a small village. Don’t be afraid of the prunes. They melt into velvet.
Cut two pounds of lamb into 2 inch cubes. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, and brown in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Remove.
Add one chopped onion, 1 C diced or sliced carrots, 1 T minced garlic, 1 C pitted prunes, 2 tsps minced ginger root, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, and salt and pepper to taste. Add 1 1/2 C red wine, 1/2 C chicken stock, and the browned lamb. Bring to a boil, then lower heat to a simmer.
Cover and cook until lamb is tender, roughly 2 hours (or more). Garnish with chopped cilantro. Serve over rice or couscous.
My Mother’s Apple Crisp
My mother died nearly eight years ago. I have this recipe memorized. I make it whenever my elder son is home, because it says HOME to him.
Peel and core 8 strongly-flavored, not too sweet, large apples.
Thinly slice into a 9×13 pyrex dish or similar casserole.
Pour 1/2 C orange juice over the apples.
Toss with a well-blended mixture of 1/4 C sugar and 1/2 tsp cinnamon.
Top with a crumb topping made from 3/4 C sugar, 1 1/2 C flour, 1/2 tsp salt, and 12 T unsalted butter, cut in with two knives, a wire pastry blender, or processed in a food processor until it achieves the texture of crumb topping.
Cook at 350 degrees for one hour.
Serve warm with eggnog, rum raisin, or cinnamon ice cream.
And always remember:
Food Is Love. Where do you find comfort?