The kitchen, a safe haven. Isolation log: Day 72.
When I first considered how I would spend my time during this shelter-in-place mandate, I decided that I would add to my cooking repertoire by watching instructional videos. Then, I would prepare the dishes that I had learned.
The idea, of course, was to kill two birds with the proverbial one stone. Since I prepare most of the meals anyway, I would be learning new skills and still get dinner on the table each night. I knew I would enjoy both the learning and the eating.
I like French cuisine and have enjoyed many memorable meals in France, but I have limited cooking experience in that field. I have what I consider to be a good skill set in Italian food, a culinary tradition that is product-driven and whose recipe for any dish varies from region-to-region, village-to-village, and cook-to-cook.
A mother sauce in Italy is a sauce made by somebody’s mother.
I have three go-to cookbooks for those times when I wanted to make something in the French tradition: Andrè Soltner’s The Lutèce Cookbook, Lulu’s Provençal Table by Richard Olney, and, of course, Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. But I was looking for something beyond replicating recipes; I wanted some visuals to enhance the cooking experience, hand’s-on demonstrations of the mysterious techniques of the much-celebrated cuisine française. I wanted to learn how to become a French chef.
I began searching the internet for sites and settled upon the French Cooking Academy. It’s a one-man show with an enthusiastic young host named Stephane, whose brief bio says he is a self-taught cook who just might keep a copy of Escoffier’s Guide Culinaire on his nightstand. Although there is an actual course of study available on this site, I chose to be cheap about it and just audit the site, mining it for recipes and video demonstrations on my own timeline.
I’m augmenting my course of study with old television programs hosted by Jacques Pépin. Unlike many, if not most of the cooking shows on the Food Network that seem to have less interest in teaching than in promoting, Pépin is soft-spoken and speaks of the love and joy that should be inherent in any cook’s approach to cuisine. I’ve yet to hear him yell, “Bam!”
I’ve had an enjoyable time in my studies. I have made and re-made the five mother sauces (béchamel, velouté, espagnole, hollandaise, and tomate) and used them to build on for saucing various foods, both proteins and produce.
I’ve made some profound discoveries: There are at least as many kinds of mustard in France as there are cheese. If you make pad thai, you can make it French by adding mustard, cream, and butter. And any piece of animal protein, by the way, is just a medium for some kind of sauce.
Over the last few weeks we’ve enjoyed the blanquette de veau, coq au vin, magrets de canard à la sauce au poivre vert, and poulet au vinaigre, among a few other dishes demanding italics. But there’s something missing in the equation. Each meal, while delicious, seemed like a formal dining experience that missed the point of seeking comfort from food in the time of the pandemic. It felt like we should have been at an over-priced, white-tablecloth kind of place with more silverware than anybody really needs.
I sense that many of the dishes I cooked might have qualified as comfort food for the French, but not necessarily for us.
While many don’t believe America has a food culture, it does. It’s not as defined as in France or, for that matter, in many other cultures. Because of our insistence to view the United States as a melting pot, our many backgrounds have led to a food culture that is diverse. That part of our food culture that seems dominant, though not particularly appreciated by self-described foodies—a sub-culture reeking of elitism—is the drive-thru restaurant. It has become as American as apple pie, TV dinners and Campbell Soup-based sauces.
In 1972, James Beard published American Cookery, an 839-page collection of recipes that runs the gamut from cocktail food to candy. Taking cues from regional cooking expressed in church cookbooks to Ladies Auxiliary collections and university publications, it is a study of a food heritage that he said is “barely beginning to sift down into a cuisine of our own.”
That same year, Jean Hewitt published a volume of near-equal heft, The New York Times Heritage Cookbook. Hewitt organized the recipes by region and then by state. It too describes an emerging food culture created by a melding of other culinary traditions.
For those looking for comfort from the meals they’re making during these times, turning to childhood favorites is where many will find comfort in dishes that remind us of a much simpler time and recall memories of home and family.
Comfort food seems to begin with starch and pretty much stays there. Noodles, potatoes and rice are the bedrock of the Comfort Cuisine that has at its root poverty. One has only to leaf through Ernest Matthew Mickler’s White Trash Cooking to get a glimpse of the diet of the dirt-poor of Appalachia, a diet of highly processed foods and unbridled fat.
On the other side of the poverty coin is the cucina povera, the Italian cooking of the rural poor. Consisting almost exclusively of local ingredients, it has in recent years been elevated to a status dining, typically involving entrails.
While everybody has their own versions of the Comfort Cuisine, I humbly offer a trio of mine.
Photography by Courtney A. Liska
Chipped Beef on Toast
Known colloquially as Shit-On-A-Shingle, it’s filling, cheap, easy-to-make and tastes a helluva lot better than its familiar sobriquet might suggest.
3 Tbs. butter
3 Tbs. all-purpose flour
2 cups milk
Pinch of ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp. garlic powder
1/4 tsp. onion powder
1/2 tsp. black pepper
3 dashes Worcestershire sauce
1/2 tsp. dried mustard
1 2.5 oz jar chipped beef
Chopped parsley for garnish
8 slices white bread
Chop the chipped beef roughly and set it aside.
Melt butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in the flour and cook for a minute. Whisk in the milk gradually and season with ground nutmeg, ground onion powder, ground garlic powder, a few drops of Worcestershire sauce, and mustard. Cook until thick and season the white sauce with black pepper. Add the chipped beef and set the heat to low.
Toast the bread and top with the beef mixture. Garnish with parsley.
The “hunter’s style” chicken with onions and peppers is both warming and delicious.
8 chicken thighs
freshly ground black pepper
all-purpose flour, for dredging
1 large red bell pepper, chopped
1 large green bell pepper, chopped
1 large onion, chopped
2-3 stalks of celery, cut into bite-size pieces
3-4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 cup dry white wine
1, 28-oz. can diced tomatoes with juice
1 cup chicken stock
1 1/2 tsp. dried oregano leaves
1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh basil leaves
Generously season the chicken with salt and pepper.
Dredge the chicken pieces in the flour to coat lightly.
In a large heavy sauté pan, heat the oil over a medium-high flame. Add the chicken pieces, skin side down, to the pan and sauté just until brown, about 5 minutes per side. Transfer the chicken to a plate and set aside.
Add the peppers, onion and celery to the same pan and sauté over medium heat until the onion is softened, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook another minute or two. Season with salt and pepper. Add the wine and simmer until reduced by half, about 3 minutes.
Add the tomatoes with their juice, broth, and oregano. Return the chicken pieces to the pan and turn them to coat in the sauce. Bring the sauce to a simmer. Cover and continue simmering over medium-low heat until the chicken is just cooked through, about 30 minutes.
Transfer the chicken to a platter. If necessary, boil the sauce until it thickens slightly, about 3 minutes. Spoon the sauce over the chicken, then sprinkle with the basil and serve.
Macaroni and Cheese
Everybody has their favorite Mac ‘n Cheese. This is mine.
2 cups dry, small elbow macaroni
1 Tbs. salt
½ tsp. ground black pepper
¼ tsp. white pepper
¼ tsp. cayenne
½ tsp. dried mustard
2 cups whole milk
4 Tbs. butter
4 Tbs. flour
1# shredded sharp cheddar cheese, divided
6 oz. shredded colby jack cheese
1/3 cup sour cream
Cook the macaroni noodles following package instructions. Drain and rinse the noodles and set aside.
In a skillet, melt the butter then add the flour to make a roux. Slowly stir in the milk. When thickened, add eggs, sour cream and seasonings in a mixing bowl and whisk.
Add cooked macaroni to a casserole dish. Stir in the milk mixture and mix thoroughly. Add sharp cheddar and colby jack cheeses. Mix well. Add to the cooked noodles. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes at 375° until cheese is melted and light brown. Place under broiler for 5 minutes. Let stand 15 minutes before servings.