There’s a silver lining to every cloud. Rainy, stormy, freezing days are cooking days for me, spent tending a fragrant simmer, in the warmth of a oven breaking blisters onto the crusts of bread. There’s an acute feeling of physical and emotional nourishment that comes with even the simplest of meals, in the worst of weather.
This past week, despite spontaneously winning a vacation – probably the biggest thing to happen to me and this blog – has been a tumultuous one at my soon-to-be-no-longer-home. It started with Friday’s sudden chill, uncharacteristic compared to most of January’s jacketless weekends; stormy clouds and moods picked up with Sunday’s frigid winds, knocking over The L Magazine posts on my corner; and peaked in a full-force, fifteen-minute blizzard, just as I stepped out to look for discarded cardboard boxes to pack all my stuff. Tuesday night, the snow continues to fall. Perhaps it’s been a shock to rediscover what winter really feels like, and it’s our faults for not being better prepared for any given moment’s gust of bad luck. Maybe nature likes to surprise, has a few tricks left to pull before being smothered by our excesses.
It’s not that I meant to be excessively morose or philosophical right now; I just can’t seem to come up with any better way to explain why cooking that slow-simmered, basic tomato sauce and eating it with that pasta meant worlds of comfort to me right after the blizzard. I thought I’d name a few other foods that always seem to hit the mark when skies are gray, as I wonder if there’s something more to do with them.
Roast chicken. There are some people who may think that roasting a whole chicken is over-productive for one person. I disagree. It leaves you with not only one good, finger-licking meal but so many leftover uses, it’s funny that more recipes for enchiladas, chilaquiles, soups, stuffed peppers, pot pies and chicken salads don’t ask you to go ahead and help yourself to a finger-licking roast chicken first, the previous night. Then come back to us tomorrow. Besides, it’s neat, it all fits into one pan, and you barely need to do any prep work with a roaster chicken before it goes into the oven. Then there are the added bonuses. I use the leftover, roasted bones to make about a gallon of chicken stock. I keep it in my freezer and use it to fuel my risotto-holism, as well as the occasional soup, or for those minimal portions in vegetable braises or stir-fries. Finally, organic, free-range chicken pieces cut up in any fashion, with or without bones, can be wildly expensive. Buying them whole is much easier on my budget.
Banana bread. I’m not a banana nor banana bread fanatic, usually. I have little cultural inheritance owing to the loaf, as I probably tasted my first slice at the church bake sale ’88, baked by one of those tall, proud, A-line skirted moms who ran the local girl scout troops. I can see why many moms like to bake it. It has the slight gooey texture of most soda breads, but there’s a fudgy quality with the bananas, addictive to any youngster. Or to a grown-up recessing into guileless child from time to time. I baked a variation with oats and sour cream last winter, and still make it every now and then.
Pizza. I had a little bumpy start with homemade pizza in the past. I still don’t own a proper pizza pan, stone, or crisper. But now that I’ve decided to leave the crustwork mostly in the hands of the guys at the closest pie shop — who sell about 4 individual pies’ worth of dough for $3 — I’ve opened up whole new channels of pizza-making that were previously dammed. Unlike today’s most astute pizza scholars, I don’t worry too much about the dough; I pile on the tomatoes, spinach, artichokes, mushrooms, leftover cilantro, heaven knows what else, butternut squash on occasion. It’s still pizza — who cares?
Minestrone. There’s nothing particularly exciting in it — beans, a peasant food, really — yet there’s no way of making it that doesn’t turn out delicious, no matter what you add. I don’t remember exactly how I made it last, tomato paste and a handful of vegetables, white beans and small pasta probably (and this corn chowder doesn’t stray too far in theory), but I remember being completely soothed and filled up by just one bowlful.
“Egg Ramen”. My friends used to think it was weird when they saw me poaching an egg in my ramen when we were living together. But soon after moving out, I caught them doing it themselves one night. Egg ramen! they called it. A total “Cathy” invention! Not really. Though I can’t tell you exactly where I picked that up from. What I find really interesting about ramen is that there are probably more ways that people commonly prepare it in the US than there are ways of breaking the rules in high school. Everyone seems to hold fast to their particular “way”: with only one teaspoon of the broth, crushed up raw and scooped up as a snack, and so on. Well, my way is cracking an egg into the center of the pot while it cooks at a slow roil. Dunno why. But it’s become a pretty necessary part of instant ramen — and strangely satisfying.
Black Beans and Rice. It’s as simple as it sounds. Only tastier. Drawing from the recipe on the back of the Goya can, I sometimes try to go a little bit out of bounds here — adding chopped chorizo or maybe some okra. But I’m still not convinced the overhead pays off, since the original is arguably just as good.