Posted: July 1, 2020
It is a bit strange that I am busier than ever when not allowed to do anything, but that seems to be the case. Jim has me working on the TorontoART section for this website and getting my input on the “shopping cart” that he keeps assuring me he is working on for the website as well.
I have also been collaborating with him on a course he designed when he and Janice had the cooking school The Chef Upstairs. It was called College Survival and it was an introductory cooking course for young people. I have had several emails asking me to do something like that as many people are cooped up inside and it’s a good time to move forward on personal pursuits.
So all that business is in the works and I am playing hooky from all of it to write a quick post on Covid Comfort food. I just thought I would put down a few thoughts from a meal I made for the little group I am now cooking for every day.
It has turned into a pretty good routine. A couple just down the dock I don’t think have ever cooked before. They are wealthy Germans. Their routine before Covid 19 was to just go out to lunch, go out to dinner and much of the time go to a local bakery and coffee place for breakfast. The only appliance I have seen them use in their huge trawler is the fridge and the corkscrew but they told me they recently bought a coffee maker. They seem like nice folks but are just coming from a very different world. So they have an online grocery delivery service that they order online what I tell them we need. The grocery service buys the stuff, puts it all in a pull cart and brings to the dock to En Plein Air and I put away the food components other than some breakfast things and things like toilet paper and the two other couples just take away their respective bits. The German couple pay for all of it and I make the breakfasts, lunches and dinners for Ciara and me, this older couple Malcolm and Martha and this German couple.
Malcolm and Martha order and pay for a case of wine each week and four bottles come our way and to the other couple each week and Malcolm and Martha have the last four. So our food costs are covered, our wine is supplied and all I have to do is the cooking – suits me!
A couple of times we have all eaten together while social distancing but most of the time Cierra just drops off the meals and we all eat separately. I don’t know if I will ever really get to know the Germans, Gerhard and Gabrielle as they are pretty quiet and even more private. About all I know is they own, or once owned, a jam company and are generous.
In contrast I am really getting to know Malcolm and Martha and they are pretty cool Americans. They have a few more miles on them than I but they have been miles that have not been wasted. That may be the trick to life. I am rambling a bit here but you will see their names come up again as for me at sixty six, to spend time with someone like Malcolm who is almost old enough to be my dad and not just my chronological senior but still able to be (by a far margin) my mental senior – well that’s something.
Now “comfort food” means a lot of different things and its really whatever meals or tastes we have in our memories from when we were kids for the most part. A safe time in a safe place with our folks who made simple, easy to prepare, and often inexpensive dishes usually from rote, and always adapted for the tastes of the various members of the family. Depending on what their cultural origin, those meals were usually ones that had been passed down from their parents and adapted to current tastes.
The French are damb good at it – all bistro food is comfort food. Steak frites, cassoulet, or the French Canadian tortiere – the list goes on and the mouth waters. But the French version of comfort food to do well still takes more effort than the average person is willing to muster.
The Italians are the ones who just do it without thinking. Almost every fancy Italian recipe has a simple rustic version that takes little skill, and as long as the ingredients are fresh can hold up against the most sophisticated dishes. I will come back to fresh in a minute.
But for some of us, while we love all sorts of comfort food, the Brits have it nailed in their pub grub. Shepherd’s pie, fish and chips, well you get the idea. Now for those of you who have not been to the U.K. in the last couple of decades the real trend is the GastroPub. These are the places that the likes of Jamie Oliver got their start. They typically will do a modern take on a traditional dish. I was in Scotland about ten years ago and in one pub the most popular thing on the menu was a Grand Marnier infused Haggis. Now if you can take on Haggis and win popularity you deserve to have a museum named after you.
So comfort food at a time like this is not only appropriate because it is a familiar thing in unfamiliar times but it also often uses food products that are readily available and ones that are easy to keep in a cold cellar for a long period of time. Just a nod to you hoarders out there.
Today many of us are returning to locally grown (200 km or 100 mile) produce. That means in most cases seasonally produced produce.
This is probably the place to introduce DJANGOS KITCHEN RULE # 3. SHOP FRESH, LOCAL & SEASONAL.
So the shopping fresh part everyone gets. The most basic of meals when made with super fresh ingredients blow away something that has “ripened” in the back of a truck over a longer period of time.
The shopping local is a good goal and one I try to live by, but it is tough, particularly if you are in a northern climate. A few generations ago, if you were living in Europe or the northern half of North America no one thought of having bananas in the winter. It is even more extreme for those who live in even more northern climates – for those who have not noticed, the banana growing season in Norway is REALLY SHORT. LOL.
So before refrigeration and inexpensive transportation were popular, if you were eating locally grown, it meant you were eating seasonally grown food and you start with the first harvest or unheated greenhouse harvest in the spring, gorge away all summer and put a few extra kilos on your gut and by fall would be preserving like mad and putting away root vegetables to survive on through the winter. So in winter you would have marmalade but no oranges and jam but no strawberries. Most of us were not keen on the food habits of farmers in Victorian times so these ideas, while good ones to try to adhere to, are not realistic for most of us who value a good, well balanced, nutritionally correct diet today. So we buy fresh when we can, local when we available and buy the other imported bits as needed.
I have found that Covid 19 has made me think a bit more about these issues, partially because of shopping less often to reduce our exposure. Now that we have the arrangement with the German couple it doesn’t matter as much but before that I was pretty spooked about the way we had to shop – flying through the store with a mask and gloves and not looking at whether the tomato was ripe or wizened and then trying to eat the fresh, very perishable produce first, and the longer life produce later in the week. It is the same with people who head off for an across the ocean sail – you can’t order a pizza when mid-Atlantic.
So If you are shopping every eight or ten or twelve days what does that look like?
Well, you buy some yellow bananas for now, some green bananas for later and some apples for the last few days of it. Similarly, on veggies it’s the fresh green beans or French beans for the next few days, the broccoli after that and the Brussels sprouts, and potatoes for the last few days of the period. The wine you drink all the way through.
So back to comfort food.
The dinner I just made is my version of the British pub meal: Bangers and Mash. For those who don’t know it, the dish is simply bangers (sausages) with mashed potatoes. Like most dishes of this kind they would often have some other bits added based on what the cook had on hand around the kitchen.
There are essentially five things you will be working on with this dish – the sausages, mash, caramelized onions, and two other veggies.
I am going to break down how I do them in a small space on a boat, using very few pots and utensils as I know from experience many of my readers here are in the same boat, well not actually the same boat or they would be here with me but in a small kitchen space at least.
Sausages – I like to just put a little olive oil in a big pot, and after heating it up get some color going on the sausages. This is all about the visual, not about cooking them. Once we get some colour on them so they look like a sausage should, we can put them aside. We will actually cook them later.
Mash – Traditionally this was mashed potatoes of course. Most of us have eaten enough mashed potatoes in our lifetime that we don’t want to go back there. So here are the variations to consider.
The first, is a little more rustic a version – smashed potatoes. Just clean up some potatoes (brush under running water) then rough cut them up into pieces. Don’t peal the skins. Use whatever you have – russets, Yukon gold, baking etc.) Put them in the pot you just used for the sausages with enough water to cover and bring to a boil. When they are soft enough that they are getting close to falling apart, drain them and with them back in the same pot mash them up with a big spoon or fork or whatever you have for the job. Add some chives, parsley, lemon thyme or other herbs you have with some salt and pepper and a bit of olive oil and see how it tastes. You might want to add some butter, or more olive oil or more pepper etc. Some will also like to add some garlic.
Now I don’t do this smashed potato thing often. I will usually do the same approach but use sweet potatoes instead. Sometimes I will leave the skins on but more often I will peal them when using sweet potatoes before cutting them up and throwing them in the pot to boil. With the sweet potatoes I also really like to focus my herb additions on just chopped rosemary and butter and olive oil as it just comes together as such a nice mash and mashup of flavours.
But last night I didn’t do either of these things for the mash. I occasionally visit Janice and Jim and on those occasions, we drink a lot and cook a lot and one dish that blew me away that Janice just nails is what she calls rutabaga puff. She works from a pretty precise recipe and likes to use a mixer to really get the rutabaga nice and puffy – not as much as a mouse but in that direction. I don’t have the room for a mixer so used a little hand blender so what I am setting out here is my “street version” of her “white tablecloth” dish.
Start with a large rutabaga, wherever you shop just get one of the big ones (about 1.5 kilo or 3 pounds)– use a peeler to get that waxy skin off then cut it up into chunks that are two or three centimetre cubes (one inch) and then give them the same boiling treatment as I described for their potato and sweet potato cousins. Then after draining, do your mashing, or blending routine to try to get this down to a nice fine consistency and add a couple of tablespoons of unsalted to butter, a little salt, pepper, olive oil etc. to taste. If you find it still has too much rutabaga attitude in taste then you need to add some maple syrup if you have it and brown sugar if you don’t. Something like a tablespoon or two.
If you have the time and interest a small handful of walnuts in a pan with low heat with some brown sugar, or maple syrup to put on top of that rutabaga mixture when serving will really amp up this humble little root vegetable.
So if you have learned anything here it is that you can make a mash with whatever root vegetables you have – parsnips, turnips, carrots etc. These are all things that you can easily and inexpensively buy, and readily store for a long while. By a long while I mean find some cold dark place in your home and they will keep pretty well for months if needed. Not a bad staple for your pandemic pantry.
On a cruise ship I worked on I went for an extended period of time being the guy who (with a few other tasks) just caramelized onions. You might think it is because I was pretty good at it. Wrong – I had inadvertently attracted the attention of a server who had not entirely completed her relationship with the chef I reported to. Cutting up twenty or thirty onions in a big pot at a time is a something I still cry over.
So get a couple of medium size yellow onions or cooking onions or ideally nice sweet Vidalia’s, pull off their skin, cut them in half and cut off the stem. I like to cut them on the length to get long stringy bits, and this is rustic cutting – big pieces, not little chopping. Then throw them in the pot that the mash was in, as you have transferred the mash to another container and cleaned the pot. Put in a glug of olive oil and sprinkle with some pepper and crank up the heat and start stirring to keep those onions moving.
After a couple of minutes when the onions are looking a bit translucent but also getting some color from the heat and the stirring, cover, turn down the heat and watch them and give them a stir pretty regularly. You are trying to get to something that is beyond translucent, has a nice bit of juice and softness, and brown colour but is not burned.
It is at about this point when you taste them that you realize you should have done this with four onions, they are so good!
Transfer to something to keep them warm in.
If you have button mushroom just do them whole but if they are ones with a diameter bigger than three or four centimeters (1.5 to 2 inches) cut on the length through the stem then cut in half through the stem as well so you have quartered them. Some people are in the camp of just brushing mushrooms but because I worked on a ship the protocol was to always really wash things well, and then wash them again, so that’s what I do. The sautéing process with mushrooms is easy. A couple little dabs of butter (15 ml) in the pot and some gentle heat for a while will do the job. After they are colouring and softening and the pot is not looking as wet with the moisture that has come out of the mushrooms, add a small puddle of white wine and swish around while they continue to sauté on very low heat.
Green Beans/ Broccoli/ Brussels Sprouts
You need to have something green on the plate for the visuals and in your stomach for all sorts of reasons, so clean up one of the pots you have been using, chose a couple of these vegetable options and get your steamer pot going to add something green to the plate. Sometimes its nice to do fancier veggies but with sausages and mash and caramelized onions on the plate you need to keep the green component simple here.
Putting it all together.
At one point you will need to come back to your sausages. They look great but they have not really been cooked so you should now put just a pencil or markers thickness of water in another pot – yes oh my god a second pot, and bring that to a simmer and poach those sausages. No one likes a dry sausage so poaching them after giving them some colour is a great way to go. If on the other hand you have some pretty fat-laden sausages and you just like to grill them, particularly if you have an outdoor grill, then go for it.
Plate up your rutabaga or other mash, and if you have it – that walnut and brown sugar mixture on top, put a sausage on the plate with lots of caramelized onions on top, get those mushrooms and your green steamed vegetables to accompany them on the plate and tuck in.
If you have any vegetarians in your group this is a great dish. Replace the button mushrooms with a second green vegetable and substitute sautéed large slices of portobello mushrooms for the sausages. Just remember with those big portobellos that before cutting them into generous slices (2cm or ¾ inch) to spoon out those little brown “gills” or fuzz, then wash and sauté as above. I find it pretty cool that large beefy mushrooms like portobellos have a lot of protein, almost as much as chicken.
I think eventually we will all be vegetarians. Some of us still like our meat and poultry and seafood but I am really cutting back on the portion those products make up on the plate.
So that’s it. I often double the size of the recipe of the sausages, mash, onions and mushrooms and on the second day just steam more green vegetables for a fast second meal.
See I told you this would be a more happy post!
I am going to try to always post on the first of the month, starting today so people will know that even if I have done other posts one will appear then. Wow – am I getting organized!
P.S. the image below is a sample of the masks Janice has been making for their local hospital. She had a goal of taking them a lot each week but I think about half have made it off to friends. I just received three for me and three smaller ones for Ciara this week. Now I’m stylin.