COOKING 101: The pleasure of soul food

We all have our own comfort food, that go-to goodie that soothes a wounded body, an anxious mind, a troubled soul.

It might be as simple as a pricey piece of the darkest dark chocolate or a bowl of cold cereal.

It might be a long-simmering beef stew or a rack of barbecue ribs slowly roasting in a low oven, the odors wafting from the kitchen bringing their own measure of comfort.

It might be something starchy you whip up stovetop and savor solo: garlicky mashed potatoes dripping with real butter, a creamy, steamy bowl of macaroni and cheese, a rich red Bolognese redolent with fresh herbs and dense with tender meatballs.

It might be something sweet and creamy, a cre?me brulee or homemade pudding dense with melt-on-the-tongue flavor and crowned with a dollop of real whipped cream.

It’s often something you usually deny yourself, something you save for the most special of occasions, something you just know will make you feel better. Maybe even something your mother made for you as a child.

A memory. An indulgence. A guilty pleasure. A tonic for what ails you that eases your struggles and tempers those troubled times tainted by stress and tinged with sadness.

And, best part of all, it’s not in pill form.

You probably know your own password to this soothing place. I asked a few friends to share theirs. Quirks aside, there’s a universal yearning during times of stress for simple stews, hearty pastas and creamy sweets.

So put on some relaxing music, brew yourself a cup of peppermint tea or a hot cider spiced with cinnamon, push your troubles to the back burner and savor.

Ahhhhhh.


SPAGHETTI AND MEATBALLS

Boil your favorite pasta al dente, toss with a little olive oil and garlic butter and top with these cheesy meatballs and fresh grated Parmesan cheese.

1 pound ground chuck

1 cup finely crushed Cheez-It crackers

2 eggs

1?4 cup finely diced onion

1?4 cup shredded parmesan cheese

2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian herbs (basil, oregano, rosemary, sage, parsley) or 1 tablespoon store-bought Italian herbs in spice grinder

Mix all ingredients with hands. Shape into meatballs. Chill until firm. Place on greased oven rack and bake 10 minutes at 450 degrees until browned. Drop meatballs into a simmering pot of your favorite marinara sauce and breathe deeply while they cook gently for at least an hour for flavors to develop.


BEEF STEW

Serve in a bowl with fresh bread. Or, omit the red potatoes and serve over a steaming mound of garlic mashed potatoes.

1 pound chuck steak, chunked

1 cup sliced shitake mushrooms

2-3 garlic cloves, sliced

4-5 cups beef stock (I like the Better Than Bouillon variety)

1?2 cup each carrots, parsnips, red potatoes, pearl onions

Brown beef in 1 tablespoon each olive oil and garlic butter until brown. Remove from pan. Add another tablespoon of butter and oil to pan. Stir-fry mushrooms and garlic, then sprinkle with 2 tablespoons of flour and brown quickly. Add 21?2 cups of beef stock and stir until well blended. Return beef to pan, cover and simmer at least an hour until beef is tender, adding more liquid if needed and enjoying the heady scents.

Meanwhile, simmer carrots and potatoes in 11?2 cups beef stock about 5 minutes. Add parsnips and pearl onions and continue cooking until al dente. Strain. Add veggies to stew and heat through, adding more stock if needed.

NOTE: Any leftover stock makes a great base for a cream of mushroom soup. Just stirfry mushrooms in oil, dust with flour, add stock and simmer until well blended, thickening with cream before serving.


CREAMY COCONUT PUDDING

Make it special by whipping a pint of heavy cream with 3 tablespoons course brown sugar and 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract.

1 bag sweetened coconut, toasted lightly in 350 degree oven

1?2 cup sugar

1?4 cup cornstarch

2 cups coconut milk (or almond milk)

4 egg yolks, beaten

3 tablespoon butter

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

In saucepan, whisk flour and cornstarch until blended. Add coconut milk and egg yolks, cooking and stirring over medium heat until thick and creamy. Off heat, add butter, vanilla extract, 3?4 cup toasted coconut and nutmeg, stirring until butter is melted. Cool, then spoon into pudding glasses or ramekins, leaving head space. Just before serving topped with whipped cream, toasted coconut and crumbled gingersnaps.

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