Food is so much more than fuel.
Think of all the ways we use food, of its social and emotional power. Think of feeding someone and the capacity that act has to convey interest, care and concern. Think of food’s healing power, of the way in which cooking for and eating with someone binds you together.
Feeding someone is an act of love. To eat what another has cooked is to accept love. To appreciate the gift is to return love.
Food is the center of the social universe, as well it should be. When friends gather, they eat. When families gather, they eat. When people discuss their business futures, they eat together.
Plans are made over food, fortunes made, empires built, marriage proposed.
When an attraction to someone is felt, one of the first things that occurs is a trip to a restaurant, a shared voyage to the table. Attraction is propelled by the act of eating together, interest is intensified, the object of one’s affection is observed, clarified, touched and understood in the presence of food.
The business of the family is rightly conducted at the dinner table.
When food is shared, conversation flowers, the symposium is born. The greatest of ideas are exchanged in the company of food and drink.
To cook for someone is to signal to him or her a desire for connection, to illuminate a connection already made and to fertilize it.
In times of need, food is a gift that can ensure survival, as necessary as clothing, shelter and warmth.
When tragedy strikes, food is proffered. When loss is experienced, food is provided.
Food is love and food is comfort.
And some foods serve the purpose of providing comfort better than others. There are foods that, when prepared, provided and shared, sustain the body and the soul.
In times of emotional need, celery hearts and aspic will not do the trick. Watercress is weak, salads lack the necessary muscle.
You want to provide solace? You wish to fortify heart and soul?
Chicken salad will not fit the bill. Save it for bridge club.
No. It has substance; it provides enormous satisfaction when spirits are high, when the atmosphere is charged with frivolous particles. It is not a bedrock comfort food; it offers no embrace.
It does not engender comfort. It does not wrap itself around the wounded heart and warm it.
Comfort food must be like an old friend: absolutely familiar (no newly developed Thai masaman can pay the ticket, no rocket or arugula dressed with a newfangled emulsion will suffice, sushi will have to wait for another occasion). We need dishes hot, dense with associations deeply anchored in a long and reassuring relationship.
What will do?
Meats, braised long and slow, awash in a thick reduction or gravy shot through with familiar flavors — onion, garlic, wine, broth, celery, carrot, parsnip. Chicken, seared off in oil and butter, then cooked slowly, in the oven, with vegetables, garlic, cream, wine, lemon.
Casseroles of all kinds fill the bill. Things baked in creamy combinations until they begin to fall apart, their essence amalgamating with the degrading substance of others. Potatoes, onion, garlic, cream, cheese, spices married by heat. Pastas, cooked al dente then baked with all manner of sauces — tomato, cream, bechamel—— with cheeses, poultry, seafood, sausages or other meats, with eggplant and onion and garlic, basil and oregano, flecks of hot pepper that light up the tongue.
These foods are heavy on the plate and palate and, once eaten, protect us like a thick blanket on a cold winter night.
Breads will do: heavy breads with thick, chewy crusts, warmed and slathered with sweet butter. Something to dip in the sauces, in the juices, in gravies. Something to absorb the delicious liquids, that can fill and expand, transform, become more than itself.
We are on the precipice of the drop into deep winter, and this situation, too, requires comfort food.
We need macaroni and cheese. Large elbow macaroni or small ziti. Start with a bechamel, a white roux made with butter, and cream, with a smidge of nutmeg, salt and pepper. Pop some shredded cheese into the sauce. What kind? Cheddar, some mozzarella, a handful or two of freshly grated Parmesan, a bit of Gruyere. Lots of cheese, and maybe just a whiff of mushed up garlic. Put it in a buttered casserole and layer the top with crumbs and dots of butter and bake it until the top is toasty brown and the sauce bubbles from beneath the crust.
Veal shanks. Give up a fortune (such as it is) for veal shanks. You’ll need to special order them here in Siberia With a View, but it is worth the price and the wait.
When procured, 3-inches thick, the shanks are tied into shape with twine and seasoned, then dredged in seasoned flour. Into a deep pot they go, to be browned on all sides. With the shanks brown and removed to a heated platter a bit more olive oil goes into the pot and in go minced white onions, chopped celery, minced carrot, some minced red pepper. When these vegetables are limp and on their way to being cooked in goes a whole bunch of minced garlic and a wad of tomato paste. Cook the mix until the paste begins to deepen in color, begins to emit a sweet, heavy odor. The odor of sadness dissipating in the dense, fragrant air of the kitchen.
In goes a hefty portion of white wine and it is reduced by half. In go the shanks and veal stock — enough that the shanks are nearly covered, but not quite. Bring the liquid to a slow boil and make a bouquet garni with parsley, thyme, rosemary, garlic and submerge the neat little bundle in the liquid.
Cover the pot and into a 350 oven it goes. Turn the shanks occasionally to keep them moist and cook them for three hours or so.
When the meat is so tender it falls apart at the touch of a fork, take out the shanks and the bouquet garni and reduce the liquid.
Oh, those shanks, that gravy.
If the comfort level needs to be jacked through the ceiling, make gremolata to serve with the veal: garlic, lemon zest, parsley and anchovy, chopped up fine together, the perfect finishing touch.
Serve the macaroni and the shanks in a deep, heavy bowl, with the bread and mounds of butter on the side.
This winter, just to be safe, make the gremolata.
We need all the ammunition we can get.