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We take comfort there

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Comfort: a state of physical ease and freedom from pain or constraint.

To comfort: to give solace or to soothe, to ease a person’s feelings of grief or distress, to shore up the mood or physical state.

But what about now? During this frightening pandemic, it seems we have to find comfort from within.

This is a surreal, disturbing time like no other we have experienced. My sister, Janet, and I share a home and find comfort in the strength of our relationship, our friendship. While eating breakfast and lunch we place a traveling Scrabble game between us. Music wafts in and the meals are leisurely. When the weather is sunny and warm, we eat outdoors. We take comfort there.

Slowly, mindfully, we have begun, since summer’s start, to resume movement and yoga classes, now conducted out of doors on one of the participants’ property, sometimes overlooking brooks, creeks, or the Delaware River, and always under the boughs of hanging tree branches and a blue sky dotted with clouds. Exercising in nature brings a calm and a feeling, if fleeting, that all is good. We are at peace and enjoy the comfort of physically distant, but socially warm, connections with the other participants.

Back at home, Janet and I are working on a volume of joint memoir pieces. We sit back to back at our computers and recall our childhoods, family members and life experiences. We write and respond to emails, keeping in touch with those we have been separated from during these seemingly endless months. Weather permitting, we invite a few friends over and space our porch furniture so that we are distanced, but together. We take comfort there.

For me, comfort is both found in the act of cooking for others and the feeling of contentment and pleasure I see them experiencing. I had the idea to quarry family and friends as to what types of dishes were their go-to comfort foods. What do they crave when they’re blue, scared, distraught, or simply need to be soothed? I emailed a request for answers, indicating that just a word or two would suffice but “colorful commentary” was certainly welcome.

The responses began to pour in moments after I pressed “send.” My cousin said of her husband, “Chuck’s comfort foods are meatloaf, lasagna and ice cream. I’m pretty fond of those three also.” A while later she sounded in again: “Unfortunately, I tend to turn to sweets for comfort! Now, I’m trying to avoid sweets, but I do find eating cherries very comforting—a bit crunchy, sweet, easy to eat, yummy... A juicy cheeseburger is a treat and I feel happy eating it!”

A woman from our movement and yoga classes wrote: “Anything with melted cheese (grilled cheese, enchiladas, mac and cheese) and hot tea are comfort foods for me.”

 A dear old friend gave a concise summation of her preferences: “Ice cream. Chocolate chips and some sort of nuts in non-chocolate ice cream like vanilla or my best coffee/mocha. I like things in my ice cream, never plain.”

A Philadelphia couple sent separate replies. The husband said, “The pandemic gives me permission to get deliveries from my favorite ethnic restaurants: fabulous Thai, Malaysian, Chinese and Mexican. I do a lot of bread baking lately and I’ve been making crackers as vehicles for spreads.” His wife wrote, “Freshly baked bread. It’s especially good because my husband makes it!”

A former work companion was nostalgic: “Casseroles. I’ve always loved them. But the best part is that they get better with time. And in terms of sweets... strangely, ice cream floats. Mom and I used to go to an A&W on the Cape, and each have a root beer float after a day of sight-seeing. Maybe that is what I am hoping to recreate. I can still see her in those memories.”

A Wisconsin pal swears by “chicken soup and meatloaf.” A New Yorker of Eastern European descent answered, “My mom’s Hungarian stuffed pepper, savory and not sweet. Lobster bisque. Chocolate mousse cake, very dark. Congee, the savory Chinese rice porridge, thick, plain or with toppings.” A few minutes later she emailed again, “How could I forget... sour cream and challah!” Someone else wrote, “Niçoise salad—the tuna fish, red potatoes, arugula and olives hit the spot.”

A Cochecton friend offered a one-word response: “Watermelon.” His partner raved about a new craving for turkey salad. “Turkey chunks, yellow onions and celery. I add mayo (has to be Hellman’s) and generous amounts of salt and pepper. Then I add the good old white distilled vinegar. Well, talk about being transferred in time. The smell as I was mixing it made me remember standing on a kitchen chair as my mother kept giving me forkfuls and she would keep asking—I was five or six—if there was enough vinegar!”

A friend from Woodstock wrote: “What really comforts me at breakfast is very old fashioned: a bowl of sour cream with bananas and a sprinkling of sugar and cinnamon.” Finally, three more people voted for meatloaf, a dish, oddly enough, I have never taken to.

Janet and I have a half dozen dishes I’ve concocted over our many years of sharing meals and we turn to them when we yearn to be free of the world’s burdens. One is my take on our Grandma Bella’s soothing chicken fricassee with tiny meatballs.

Congee, a gingery Chinese rice porridge, drizzled with toasted sesame oil and soy sauce is another. Particularly welcoming in cool weather, is a Moroccan lamb stew, or tajine, with dried apricots and prunes, served with chewy pearls of Israeli couscous.

To us, wide buttered egg noodles into which sweet butter has been stirred is the epitome of comfort food. Top that with cheesy creamed spinach or our latest favorite, a nice-sized portion of chunky creamed chicken in a sauce made with white wine, into which some sliced mushrooms and a handful of sweet peas are tossed. This may be eaten with big soup spoons. We very much take comfort there.

Creamed chicken on buttered wide egg noodles

Serves 2 to 3

If you don’t have dried porcini mushrooms on hand, you can substitute sautéed sliced fresh cremini mushrooms (about 1/2 cup).
3/4 pound – 1 pound cubed, cooked, white meat chicken breast (from a rotisserie chicken)
1-ounce dried porcini mushrooms
1 1/2 cups rich chicken broth (or canned chicken broth)
3/4 cup frozen peas, thawed, or par-boiled fresh peas
1/2 cup Madeira, white wine, or sherry
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
1/2 cup heavy cream
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon minced fresh herbs, such as tarragon, thyme, and rosemary (or a combination)
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley, for garnish
Wide (buttered) egg noodles, for serving (cooked following the package’s direction)

Place the porcini mushrooms in a small bowl and cover with 1/2 cup of hot water. Let sit for 20 minutes. Remove the mushrooms, squeezing them dry, and reserve the liquid in the bowl. Coarsely chop the mushrooms and set aside.

In a large saucepan or Dutch oven, melt the butter over medium-low heat.

Add the flour and stir 1 to 2 minutes until incorporated. Whisk in the Madeira or sherry, mushroom liquid, and chicken broth. Raise heat to high and whisk, stirring, until mixture comes just to a boil and thickens. Add cream and continue to whisk until sauce is thick enough to heavily coat the back of a spoon.

Remove from heat. Season with salt and pepper and add fresh herbs, reserving the 2 tablespoons of fresh parsley. Add chicken to pot, along with the porcini mushrooms and peas. Serve immediately on buttered wide egg noodles, garnished with parsley. 

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