Cooking for Comfort, Cooking for Joy

Sometimes you just need things that feel comfortable. Comfort comes in many forms.  Comfort can be your favorite sweater or a warm blanket.  It can be a song that makes you think of something happy, or it can be a meal that evokes a memory.  From the beginning of the pandemic I’ve been wearing comfortable elastic waisted pants and polartec fleece; now that it’s warm I only shed the fleece. In fact with all the cooking I’ve been doing I’m not sure I actually fit into my jeans — ok yes I do and for those of you concerned I’m working out at home.  I found not only comfort but also joy in cooking during these trying times.  Cooking became an outlet for me, a way to get my energy out, and do something creative.  I looked forward to the end of the day when I would peek inside my fridge, freezer and pantry and see what yummy meal I could whip up.  And since I can’t paint, I can’t draw, don’t have the patience to knit and with lots of animals around doing a puzzle just wasn’t an option, I decided that cooking would be my creative outlet.  It didn’t matter if I had fancy ingredients or the most basic, it was all about the creating. 

I would put my chef head on after a long day at the computer and look in the fridge and freezer and plan my next episode of Chopped, the Homecook edition. Now that I live in the burbs and not a tiny apartment in the sky, I am lucky enough to have a pantry!  And I think it’s in my DNA to keep it all well stocked.  My parents were always of the “You Never Know” philosophy so we always had a full fridge, freezer and pantry. And that way of thinking was most probably handed down from my dad’s mom, the grandmother I’m always referring to in my stories. Grandma was from that generation of immigrant Jews that believed that if you had food on your table all was good in the world, it was a sign for them that they “had,” even if they didn’t.  Grandma always had a full table no matter how little money she had or what the circumstances were in life. This type of thinking was handed down to my dad who lived by the same credo and he handed that down to me. My fridge and freezer are full and so is my pantry so I’ve been doing a lot of what I call #pantrycooking and #freezercooking.

When I lived in the city and had a job where I traveled a lot, I didn’t cook very much. I used to tell people that it was more expensive and wasteful to cook than buy ready-made or get delivery. Often I’d either be out for dinner for work or traveling, and most of the bought ingredients would go to waste. Now being home, I am very mindful about what’s in the fridge, freezer and pantry and am trying not to let things go to waste. This has been a good lesson, and has encouraged me to let my creative juices flow and turn these items into meals.  Both the cooking and planning brought me joy.  Each night, I think about what protein I might take out of the freezer and then think about what’s in the fridge and pantry and what I can then create. 

There is something very soothing about cooking, there’s a rhythm, a cadence that when you get into it can be very comforting. Yes of course there can be chaos too but I find the whole process very soothing even the chaos. When you find that right rhythm, have your timing down and all things flow, it’s kind of like a symphony.  When it all comes together and the meal is created, now that brings me joy. Sharing a meal, cooking it, creating the menu this all brings me joy. But what brings me the most joy is the look on my friends’ faces as they partake in what I’ve made for them — comfort and joy for me.

My inspiration today comes from all the fabulous foods I’ve seen or tasted from all the amazing places I’ve been. At times I felt like I was taking a trip through my meals — a Spanish inspired or Italian inspired dish made me feel like I was somewhere else.  If I felt a little exotic I’d make an Indian or Thai inspired meal; or if I felt like I needed something more “homey” maybe I’d make a stew or pot pie.  I love cookbooks, websites and cooking magazines and cooking shows and am constantly looking at them all for more inspiration. I have boxes of index cards from my parents along with memories of my grandmother’s cooking and I’ll take these ideas and transform them based on what’s in my fridge, pantry and freezer.  It’s hard to cook meals for yourself, most recipes are for at least 2 and usually more so you have to be very mindful about how to adapt to solo meals. Occasionally I’d make a large batch of something and I’d either freeze the extras or share with my neighbors. My former neighbor in the city used to be the recipient of extras, and she has told me on more than one occasion that she is envious of the fact that I am now sharing with others.

I’ve been drawn to making what might be considered comfort foods. Yes I know my pictures make them look fancy, I love photographing food; I think ingredients either raw or cooked are beautiful.  But in fact, most items are really non-fancy, pantry, fridge and freezer ingredients that can be put together fairly quickly, without too much fuss and with ingredients that are not too expensive. A key is to make sure that you have lots of different spices and dried herbs in your pantry.  Another key is to have lots of cans of beans, tomatoes as well as dried pastas and rices as well as stocks. 

One of my favorite comfort dishes that I recently made was my mom’s lasagna. I remember her making this rich Northern Italian recipe that would take hours to prepare. I used to love watching as she’d make each part of the lasagna, browning the sausage; cooking each noodle with care so that it wouldn’t break; making the bechamel and the red sauce; mixing and flavoring the ricotta and finally layering and assembling with loads of mozzarella. I basically followed her recipe but of course put my own twist on it to cut down on the cooking time — I used no cook lasagna noodles, and enhanced a fantastic jarred tomato sauce with some extra goodness. I had all the ingredients on hand so it was easy to make and the end result was an ooey gooey rich lasagna that I shared with my neighbors and also froze for later meals — pantry cooking and freezer cooking at its finest. Here’s the original index card from mom in her handwriting and original cooking splatters — along with a picture of my creation.

I’ve been posting my cooking to my instagram and facebook pages and who knows maybe one day I will put them all together along with the recipes into a book. Posting them and sharing them has been my way to connect with people and bring joy to those who liked seeing my creations. In these days of self isolation, we all needed ways to bring comfort and joy to ourselves.  My way was to share my creations; it was a way of reaching out with something that gave me joy and hope that it might put a smile on the face of others.  So I will leave you with a few of my favorites from our quarantine time.  All the ingredients came from either my fridge or freezer, peppered with what’s in the pantry and now my garden.  I hope they inspire you to look in your fridge, freezer and pantry and create meals that bring you comfort and joy.

A Sweet New Year Filled With Food, Friends and Love

Happy New Year all whether you are Jewish or not, I’m wishing you all a sweet year to come. The week between the New Year and Yom Kippur is one full of celebration and reflection and of course food. It’s a time when we gather with our families and usher in the year with traditional foods many of which are sweet to usher in a sweet New Year; apples and honey, sweet rather than savory challah, honey cake. We anxiously eat a big feast before Kol Nidre, so that we fill our bellies in anticipation of the fast to come. We wish each other an easy fast and spend the next 24 hours in prayer, repentance and introspection. Sundown comes, the shofar blows and we all join our families for the large break-fast celebration usually filled with “appetizing” and spreads — lox, bagels, kugel, smoked fish salads and so much more.

Notice, food is a common thread, it is again the unifying force that brings us together in celebration. As someone whose parents are no longer here, I am very lucky to have an extended family of friends with whom I spend the holidays. I look back at the amazing meals mom made, having learned many of the recipes from my dad’s mom. My grandmother only knew as she would call it “Jewish food” and my mom learned from her how to make many of these wonderful traditional foods. I am lucky to have found a treasure trove of recipes written on index cards from my mom. Grandma never wrote down a recipe, she said “eh, who does that? I put a little of this and a little of that, cook it for as long as it needs to cook and then it’s done.” Her foods were never what you could call healthy, in fact salad she would say is for the animals; salad for was eaten only when you had appetizing foods and then it was just a slab of iceberg and if you were lucky it had a blob of russian dressing. Chicken fat or peanut oil were the cooking fats of choice and vegetables were never really the color they came from in the wild but rather all took on a grey hue since they were either from a can or just cooked until there wasn’t a nutritional drop left. Yet somehow it all tasted comforting and delicious and we never worried about calories or cholesterol!

For the New Year, dad, who learned from Grandma, would make the most decadent chopped liver. All the ingredients had to be warm he would say, that’s the key. The livers, only chicken, with onions fried in schmaltz, (yes dad would render his own) warm hard boiled eggs, all chopped by hand in a wooden bowl and seasoned to perfection. Here is the recipe

Of course there was chicken soup with matzoh balls, and I’m not sure who made it better, grandma, mom or now me. Grandma’s secret she would say was adding a marrow bone to give it the extra body — and of course chicken feet for that super rich taste. She’d search high and low for kosher chicken feet and towards the end of her years of cooking she gave up using them since it was almost impossible to find. Matzoh balls, light but still with body would sit in the middle of the most wonderful rich chicken soup adorned with carrots and “bissel” of dill and egg noodles. Mom carried on the tradition for me after Grandma and Dad were gone. Her soup was just as yummy and made with care. Her’s was a bit more fancy, very clear broth with beautifully cut carrots, added after the soup was done so they would still be crisp and fresh, and the lightest matzoh balls floating in the middle surrounded by egg noodles. I decided that I would treat myself and make my own batch to celebrate the New Year during the week. Here’s a picture. I can’t tell you the recipe because I cook just like Grandma, a bit of this, a bit of that, done like this and done when it’s done.

Grandma would always finish the dinner with her honey cake. She we all now admit, wasn’t the greatest baker, but her honey cake was always delicious. Her cookies, well that’s a tooth cracking story for another time, but honey cake was definitely worth eating. So tonight I thought I’d take a crack at making one since I have a friend staying here through the holiday. Friends since high school, reconnected over the past few years, and I can’t imagine not having this amazing lady in my life. So I baked us a honey cake so that we could celebrate the coming New Year with a delicious sweet as my grandmother and mother would have done. I put my own touches on it, it’s a bit fancier and boozier than Grandma would have made — for those who know me, bourbon is my thing so it’s laced with bourbon to give my touch. And well I guess this counts as the “drink” portion of this blog, lol.

Food unites us, we celebrate the good, the bad, with family, with friends over a meal. Food is nourishment for the body and the soul. I wish you all a happy, healthy and sweet New Year!