Monday, March 30, 2009

Food for Comfort

"Laughter is wine for the soul---laugh soft, or loud and deep, tinged through with seriousness....Once we can laugh, we can live." S. O'Casey.

A Cover Girl Dinner can be medicinal. As both sides of my family cope with what life throws at us - there is nothing better than spending time making light of what you can and sharing a meal. The March Bon Appetit issue was devoted to "comfort food." But it takes more than food to comfort - it also takes sharing the food with others. Comfort is taken to a new level. For a few hours, you can laugh at what pains you. You can share and lessen your load. Our appetizer, entree and dessert all came from the March Bon Appetit issue. Comfort ruled my home for an evening.

Early March brought warmth to Minnesota. Late March brought icy winds and fear of flooding. We are in transition. Just as our families are. Just as our children are. Talk centered on our parents, graduations, new vistas for our increasingly grown-up children.

So, grab a mug of coffee or tea, or pour a glass of wine. Take out a digestive biscuit and get comfortable as I go through the menu. The post is a long one - but fulfilling.

Some Asiago cheese and Sicilian olives were put into the living room. And just because the day required some warmth, we started with brie smothered with sauteed mushrooms.

And baked till all was gooey, sloppy and impossibly comforting.

I had to make some adjustments to the Shepherd's Pie - which traditionally calls for lamb. I eat lamb but am related to people who do not. And since part of cooking is sharing the meal with others, I did substitute beef. Of course the results are different but really - it was savory, mellow, tender - all components of being comforted.

*Start this dish well-ahead of time; it's not hard but it takes time. Don't be put off by the number of ingredients - the overwhelming majority are things you probably have.

1-1/2 pound eggplant, unpeeled cut into 1 inch cubes (I peeled it)
coarse kosher salt
7 T extra-virgin olive oil (divided)
2 lbs, well-trimmed boneless lamb shoulder cut into 1 inch cubes (I used beef)
All-purpose flour
3 cups chopped onions
1 cup dry white wine
1 28-oz can diced tomatoes in juice
3 cups organic beef broth
8 garlic cloves chopped
1 T dried oregano
2-1/2 pounds russet potatoes - peeled and cut into 1 inch cubes
2 T butter
2 T extra-virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves minced
3/4 cup whole milk
1-1/4 cup coarsely grated kasseri cheese (Can use Pecorrino Romano - which I used)
Filling: Scatter eggplant on rimmed baking sheet. Cover with Kosher salt, toss and let sit for an hour. You can toss a few more times. Rinse and pat very dry.
Heat 3T oil in large skillet over medium high heat. Add eggplant, saute till tender, about 12 minutes. Transfer to bowl. Sprinkle meat (lamb or beef) generously with coarse salt and butter.
Toss with a sprinkling of flour. Add 1/2 to pan and cook till nicely brown (about 8 minutes). Remove, add 2 more T of oil and do 2nd half. Remove.
If needed, add 1 more T of oil to pan and saute onions. Cook over medium-low heat till very tender - about ten minutes. Note: Bottom of pan will be well-browned. Add wine to pot and increase heat. Scrape up all brown bits and simmer till all wine is evaporated - about five minutes. Add tomatoes with their juices, broth, garlic and oregano and bring to a boil. Add lamb and any accumulated juices. Cover. Reduce heat to love and simmer for one hour.
Take a shower and vacuum the house.
Uncover skillet and continue to reduce until the sauce thickens slightly - about another 45 minutes.
Do your nails, read a book, make the potato topping, bake a cake (which is what I did), turn on your favorite CD and sing loudly. Dance. Relax.
Stir in eggplant. Season with salt and pepper and transfer to a 13 x 9 x 2 inch glass baking dish. Can be made ahead. Cool slightly, cover and refrigerate - or forge on.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Cook potatoes in large pot of salted boiling water till tender - about 14 minutes. Meanwhile, melt butter with oil in medium sauce pan. Add garlic, saute until fragrant (1 minute). Add milk and bring to a simmer.
Drain potatoes and return to pot. Stir over low-medium heat till all liquid is evaporated. Add milk mixture and mash till smooth. Stir in cheese and season potatoes. Drop heaping tablespoonfuls of potatoes on meat mixture. Smooth till all is covered. Fold in oregano. Bake "pie" until all is heated through - and potatoes are golden - about 45 minutes.
The photo is blurry, (when it's time to serve your guests - you serve your guests), I forgot the oregano but it was a flavor medley of vegetables, tender meat and soft-cheesy potatoes. As comforting as a warm blanket and wonderfully casual - nobody worries if the napkin falls off your lap, if the sauce oozes over the plate or if your elbows bump.

An impromptu salad of butter lettuce, red peppers and shaved Parmesan in a vinaigrette was served on the side.

And the conversation flowed. Through clean-up and dessert. Which was:

- a caramel-apple crisp served with fresh whipped cream. All went according to plan until I put the apples into the caramel to coat. The cold apples seized up the caramel into icy mounds but nobody noticed, nobody cared and the beauty of comfort food is it doesn't need to be precise. And then - just 'cause I already did a trial run on March 17 and I could -

I served Dorie Greenspan's French Yogurt Cake with a marmalade glaze. Everyone had one piece of each. Sweet comfort.


creampuff said...

What a lovely, warm and comforting meal! Wish I could have been there to take part.

Claudia said...

Come visit! Our monthly Cover Girl dinners are open.