Cold Comfort

Tragedy, when it strikes, whether it be national and sweeping or personal and held tight against you – and I have experienced both this week – plunges you into strangeness.  There is shock, there is disbelief, there are weighty moments of contemplation, there is knowledge of helplessness.  There is the feeling of being alone.

When I feel the chill and the incomprehensible wounding of tragedy, I want my belly full of warmth and familiarity and comfort.  And while it may seem trivial or even juvenile to want to write about food in the aftermath of gut-twisting pain, I think there is an important connection to be made.  As Shauna said shortly after Hurricane Sandy, one of the ways food is important is that it brings us together.  Her post moved me deeply, and made me feel that it’s not trivial or disrespectful to feel the need to talk about humble little food in the aftermath of disaster.  The loneliness and helplessness of pain can be beaten back by community.  When we come together, we are able to offer one another comfort, even if it is slight, and the metaphorical warmth of our togetherness can often eclipse physical heat.  Food bridges that gap.  It offers a physical warming, yes, in that it nurtures us and fills us and helps us carry on as individuals.  But it also links us – we eat together, we break bread, and in eating together we share ourselves with each other in meaningful ways, even if we didn’t realize that sharing took place.  It binds us in communities, however small, and having fellows in a bad situation, whether they are fellow mourners or whether they are comforters and supporters, gives us the opportunity for light and warmth, if we are able to feel that connection.

So when I talk about food today, I want to talk about food that warms us.  I want the fullness of soup and the richness of dessert.  I want the clinking of spoons and the sprinkling of spice that stabilizes and relaxes and envelopes us.  I want us to be able to feel the warmth of love which, to me, is most easily expressed through a transfer of food: if I feed you, it’s a good bet I care about you.  It’s a small thing, and you may think it’s a silly thing or an unimportant thing, but it is perhaps the only thing I can do in this moment to reach across the feeling-less blips of the net-scape and offer you warmth.  But I mean it.  Take this warmth.

“95. Indian Pudding: Combine 3 cups of milk and 1/3 cup of cornmeal in a saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a simmer; stir in 1/3 cup of molasses, 1 tablespoon sugar, ¼ teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon ginger and ½ teaspoon cinnamon and simmer, stirring occasionally, until thick. Add 1 tablespoon of butter and stir until melted. Pour pudding into buttered baking dish and bake at 300 degrees for about 2 hours, uncovered, until golden brown and set in the middle. Serve with ice cream or whipped cream.

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Stirred sternly, this mixture took on the texture and the color of pumpkin pie filling.  It began to spit and burble like a pot of grits (which, in a somewhat removed way, it was), and I decided it had done its time.  Into the oven with it.

I think I overbaked this.  Just the barest firmness across the top, like a good cheesecake, is what is needed.  Mine was stiffly set.  I also think I chose the wrong cooking vessel.  I used a glass pie dish.  Serviceable, sturdy, but too wide.  The pudding came out an odd inch or so thick.  A deep mass of wobbly richness would have been preferable.

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Despite these fallbacks, it was still very, very good.  Perhaps it was the color and the texture, but it really did remind me of crustless pumpkin pie.  The cornmeal and milk became a custard, and the rich deepness of molasses and autumnal spices left me wanting to douse this with a healthy dollop of Reddi-whip.  I settled for vanilla ice cream instead.

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“18. Hot and Sour Vegetable Soup: Sauté chopped onions and garlic in vegetable oil until soft. Add chopped or shredded carrots, cabbage, and daikon or turnip, frozen corn, chopped boxed tomatoes with their juice and stock to cover; bring to a boil. Simmer for 15 minutes, then finish with about a tablespoon of rice wine vinegar per 2 cups of soup and loads of black pepper.”

Soup warms the belly like very little else.  This one, with the copious quantities of black pepper and the inevitable sour burn of the rice vinegar, promised a cauldron of comfort.  Quantities listed here make enough for two large bowls – quite enough for a deep December lunch.

2 TB vegetable oilFood Blog 2011-2013-0179

¼ large onion, diced

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 carrot

½ medium turnip

8 napa cabbage leaves

½ cup frozen corn kernels

14.5 oz can of petite diced tomatoes

2-3 cups chicken or vegetable broth

2 TB rice vinegar

½ tsp salt

½ pepper to start – add more to your liking

Heat the vegetable oil over medium heat and sauté the onion and garlic for a few minutes, until the onions just begin to pick up color.

Meanwhile (or beforehand, if you are not speedy with your vegetable prep), peel the carrot and turnip.  Once you have disposed of the scraps, continue to peel the carrot into thin strips with your vegetable peeler.  Cut the pile of ribbons in half or in quarters to create bite-sized pieces.

Cut the turnip in half from root to tip, then crosswise into thin slices.  Julienne each thin slice so you have slim matchstick pieces.

Stack the napa cabbage leaves, then roll into a thick cigar and slice as thinly as possible.

Add the vegetables to the onion and garlic.

Add the corn kernels and the broth and simmer the whole pot for 15-20 minutes, or until all vegetables are tender and everything is warmed through.

Add the rice vinegar, salt, and pepper, stir gently, and serve.

I loved everything about this soup except the tomatoes.  They weren’t a bad addition, there were just too many of them.  Were I making this again, I might decrease the quantity, or just drain the can and add only the liquid for the color and acidity.  The strings of carrot and turnip kept a minimal bite, and the combination of vinegar and pepper was near perfect.  The puckering sourness played against and contributed to the bland crunch of the vegetables, and alongside a hastily prepared hunk of garlic toast, this was a satisfying lunch on a chill day: it was heat, and comfort, where both were needed.

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Be well, all.

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