Comfort Food

  “In the childhood memories of every good cook, there’s a
large kitchen, a warm stove, a simmering pot and a mom.”
~ Barbara Costikyan


Have you ever wondered just what it could be that draws us inexorably to
the kitchen in times of distress or crisis? Have you ever thought about the
difference between "cooking" and "fixing food"? I am honored to share
Regina Schrambling's words of wisdom on these topics with you...

When the Path to Serenity Wends Past the Stove
By Regina Schrambling
The New York Times, September 19, 2001
"When a friend called to say she had suddenly felt compelled to bake an
apple pie last Saturday, I understood why. Anyone who cooks even casually knows the feeling. Cooking is almost always a mood-altering experience, for good or for bad, and at its best it is do-it-yourself therapy: more calming
than yoga, less risky than drugs.
The food is not really the thing. It's the making of it that gets you through
a bad time.
On Thursday, I was motivated to make stew, and not because I had any
real craving for meat. I needed to go through the slow process of rendering
salt pork, sautéing onions and shallots, browning the beef and simmering
it for hours with Cognac and stock and two kinds of mustard. Nothing
about the recipe, one I have made every winter since learning it in cooking school 18 years ago, could be rushed, which was exactly what I wanted. Sometimes cooking is its own reward.
Experts theorize why it works, but to me it seems clear. Everything about cooking engages the senses. There's a physical aspect to it, even if you use
a food processor more than a knife, and so at least a couple of endorphins
have to be involved. But the psychological impact is even more obvious.
When you're all finished, you have something to show for the time and
effort: a loaf of bread, a batch of cookies, a pot of stew. On Thursday,
those three hours of putting one step after another led to a kind of serenity,
the feeling that no matter what was happening outside my kitchen, I had
complete control over one dish, in one copper pot, on one burner.
But cooking also lets you cede control, if that's what you need. There's
a reason they call it following a recipe. Sometimes it just feels calming to
know that a cake needs exactly one teaspoon of salt and no less than half

 a pound of butter.
It's why I never try a new recipe when I cook to feel better, and I don't
think most people do. The familiar is what soothes. If I'm having a dinner
party, I search through cookbooks and clippings to find the most novel appetizer or dessert. When I need solace, I pull out an old cookbook with
a recipe for the corn pancakes with smoked trout or the blueberry-peach
cake I have made more times than I can remember.
One of the sharpest observations my sister Johanna has ever made is that
there is a difference between cooking and fixing food. One is a fulfilling
project. The other involves combining easy ingredients fast. Quesadillas
are food you fix. Stew is cooking. It's instant gratification versus satisfac-
tion that builds slowly and stays with you. And yet so much of life is just
fixing food.
I know speed is of the essence in the cooking my consort and I do most
days. We buy fish and grill or broil it. We steam corn or broccoli. We sometimes eat mesclun undressed right out of the bag. And we almost
never bother with dessert.
When I cook for comfort, everything is different. I buy meat, like chuck
or short ribs, and braise it for hours. I make garlic mashed potatoes, an elaborate gratin or potatoes Escoffier, with a whole stick of butter for
two pounds of roasted Yukon Golds. And I get out the sugar and
chocolate and bake.
The recipes that appeal most are the ones that layer on the richness,
that prove more is better with butter. Abstemiousness is not an option
when you're feeling low.

 I have no desire for sweetness when I reach for the mixing bowls and measuring cups. I just get profound pleasure out of making muffins
that are almost caffeine cakes
, flavored with espresso and loaded with chocolate chips and walnuts. I like to see how different chocolate chip
cookies
can turn out from batch to batch. And I enjoy the whole idea
of having to put together three components for something as simple as
maple pecan bars, from the shortbread crust to laying the pecans over
the gooey filling.
It's the reason I make céleri rémoulade every fall. I like being able to take
the time to cut the celery root into tiny little strips and dress them with
sour cream, mustard and parsley and then let the bowl sit until the flavors
have come together. And it's why I feel so compelled to roast red peppers
this time of year and let them marinate in olive oil and garlic. The process
of charring the peppers and peeling them is almost more satisfying than
eating them on warm bread. At some point, I slip into a more mellow state
of mind. I'm cooking, I'm making something, but it is not just food to be consumed unthinkingly.
In a city where any food imaginable is normally available at any time of
day, cooking takes on more meaning. If we feel hungry, we can order in
egg rolls or curry. But if we feel hollow, we can bake pumpkin bread or molasses cookies. Comfort food is what someone cooks for you.
Comfort cooking is what you do for yourself.
And the reason you do it is very simple: cooking is the most sensual
activity a human being can engage in, in polite company. My stew
involved smell (onions softening, Cognac reducing), touch (the chopping,
the stirring), sound (that sizzle of beef cubes hitting hot fat), sight (carrot
orange against the gold-brown of mustard and beef stock) and especially
taste. Making it was a way to feel alive and engaged.

 Whoever said cooking should be entered into with abandon or not at all [Harriet Van Horne] had it wrong. Going into it when you have no hope
is sometimes just what you need to get to a better place.
Long before there were antidepressants, there was stew."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Dijon and Cognac Beef Stew

Time: About 3 hours
Yield: 4 to 6 servings.
1/4 pound salt pork, diced
1 large onion, finely diced
3 shallots, chopped
2 to 4 tablespoons butter, as needed
2 pounds beef chuck, in 1-inch cubes
2 tablespoons flour
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons butter, as needed
 1/2 cup Cognac
2 cups beef stock
 1/2 cup Dijon mustard
4 tablespoons Pommery mustard
4 large carrots, peeled and
cut into half-moon slices
 1/2 pound mushrooms, stemmed,
cleaned and quartered
 1/4 cup red wine.
1. Place salt pork in a Dutch oven or a large heavy kettle over low heat,
and cook until fat is rendered. Remove solid pieces with a slotted spoon,
and discard. Raise heat, and add onion and shallots. Cook until softened
but not browned, 10 to 15 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer to a
large bowl.
 2. If necessary, add 2 tablespoons butter to the pan to augment fat.
Dust beef cubes with flour, and season with salt and pepper. Shake off
excess flour, and place half the cubes in the pan. Cook over medium-
high heat until well browned, almost crusty, on all sides, then transfer
to a bowl with onions. Repeat with remaining beef.
3. Add Cognac to the empty pan, and cook, stirring, until the bottom is deglazed and the crust comes loose. Add stock, Dijon mustard and 1 tablespoon Pommery mustard. Whisk to blend, then return meat and
onion mixture to pan. Lower heat, cover pan partway, and simmer
gently until meat is very tender, about 1 1/2 hours.
4. Add carrots, and continue simmering for 30 minutes, or until slices are tender. As they cook, heat 2 tablespoons butter in medium skillet over medium-high heat, and sauté mushrooms until browned and tender.
5. Stir mushrooms into stew along with remaining mustard and red wine. Simmer 5 minutes, then taste, and adjust seasoning. Serve hot.