Comfort food

Writing a weekly post can be a bit like needing to put a meal on when it’s your turn to cook. Good days, you’ll have adequate time to come up with something satisfying. But sometimes it’s like preparing a meal in half an hour. You need to pull out something fast, but you still want it to be rewarding for your audience. I hope this pinch-hit post works out that way for you. (It will depend in part on what happens in the comments, of course.)

Around our place, when there’s no time to cook — and we can’t stand the thought of takeout again — we’ve had a long-standing fall-back (is that an oxymoron?) in a dish we call Rasta Chili, because it comes out looking like the rainbow of universal colors (red, green, yellow, black). It’s adapted from some Moosewood recipe or another and goes something like this:

Chop and sauté a largish onion and a couple cloves of garlic. While the onions are softening, chop up a couple red and green bell peppers, which you’ll add once the onions are translucent. Keep that cooking while the peppers soften, five minutes or so. Season with cumin and chili powder — about 1 tbsp each — but don’t let the spices burn. Add a can of black beans, a can of red kidney beans, and a can of chopped tomatoes. (If you’re cooking for two, use 15 oz cans; if you’re cooking for four use 28 oz cans and up the spices a little.) Simmer until everything’s nice and soft. Add a 10 oz bag of frozen corn. Serve when the corn’s heated through. Garnish with cilantro, lime, avocado, fresh tomatoes in lime juice, jalapeños, or whatever else floats your boat. Sautéed zucchini works well on the side or use diced zucchini in the chili itself.

There. Should be ready in under 30 minutes.

Need a quick and tasty lunch? My friend Shelley taught me this one years ago. They’re called Sun Tacos.

Preheat your broiler. Get out a couple corn tortillas. Make a stripe down the middle using your favorite miso paste. This works well with light or dark miso, so take your pick, and use more or less, depending on how much you like the salty deliciousness that is miso paste. Add a little grated cheese (doesn’t need too much) and toss them in the broiler. While they heat — don’t let them burn — chop some red peppers or tomatoes and grate a couple carrots. When the tortillas come out of the oven, pile on the chopped veggies, fold, and enjoy. The burst of shredded carrots gives them their name.

So what meals work for you in a pinch? Where do you turn when your back’s against the wall?

35 responses to “Comfort food”

  1. Dave says:

    There’s a Middle Eastern/Carribean place on Dean Street. $5 for a plate of rice and beans, stewed cabbage, and jerk chicken. Some call this cheating. I call it dinner.

  2. Middle Eastern/Caribbean

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen this combination before. Is it owned by people who emigrated to Trinidad or somewhere like that from the Middle East, and subsequently to Brooklyn? Or what?

  3. Scotty says:

    Now that it’s summertime in Long Beach (it’s been pushing 100 for the last week), Swells and I are big fans of picnic dinners: a baguette, some cheese, speared cucumbers with salt and pepper, tomato slices, pate, fruit of some kind, and a bottle of wine.

    I particularly like this meal because it’s so social; you never hunker down over a plate; you’re always moving onto the next flavor combination. I also a big fan because the meal has endless variations: you can add different meats (you can even add grilled or pickled fish to the equation), cheeses, fruits, cold soups… It’s like an endless bounty of love and joy!

  4. Dave says:

    Owned by Arabs, but one owner’s wife is Jamaican and she cooks big batches of Carribean food every day to stock the steam tables.

  5. Tim says:

    The standby, go-to meal around here is black beans and rice, with plantains and a salad. Double everything if you want leftovers for lunch, or are feeding more than two. Saute an onion (finely chopped) and a couple cloves of garlic (pressed) in olive oil. Season with cayenne, chili powder, chili flakes, salt, and oregano. Simmer for a little bit and add a few Tbsp. of red wine. Cook the wine down and add a can of black beans, liquid and all. (Give the cat a treat after you open the can of beans; otherwise she’ll be underfoot.) If you like your beans sort of soupy, mash them up with a potato masher. Turn up the heat and stir frequently, so the beans cook down a bit. After five minutes or so, turn down the heat and partially cover the pot, stirring every few minutes. Make some rice in the regular way.

    In our house, plantains should be good and brown before cooking (when they’re sweetest), so we usually have one or two just sitting around ripening. Heat up vegetable oil in a frying pan (enough to just cover the sliced plantains). Cut plantains and fry until golden brown on both sides. If sufficiently ripe and cut just right (slightly under a half-inch thick, I’d say), they turn out soft and puffy.

    Serve the beans over rice, with the plantains and a salad on the side. The combination of the spicy beans and sweet fruit is just too good, and the whole meal takes about 30 minutes. We make this on average once a week.

  6. rm says:

    let me just chime in with how impressed i am by how healthy your quick meals are. not too many animal fats and refined sugars being consumed by the whatsit crew. we eat a lot of takeout-enriques, athens west, and pizza at least once a week.

  7. trixie says:

    scott, our quickie meal is a lot like yours and swells’. i put out hummus, cheese, olives, maybe a sliver of some leftover meat, and crackers. make a salad, which is often just one kind of green (arugula, watercress) and some good olive oil, sea salt, lemon juice.
    dinner served. 15 minutes, tops.
    this meal is at least once a week at our house and also most always includes warmed leftovers of some kind, heated and presented in a way that tricks us into wanting to eat it again.
    when it’s super hot out, the frequency of this meal can climb to 3-4 times a week.

  8. trixie says:

    this summer i am going to try using romaine lettuce instead of crackers.
    our CSA has already suggested that there will be a lot of it this season.

    i made this lettuce soup on friday out of the first 2 heads of romaine and a big bag of mature spinach leaves from the farm share also:

    1 onion, 1 leek, two cloves garlic chopped and heated in olive oil with sea salt, cayenne and coriander added once translucent.
    Add huge pile of coarsely chopped romaine lettuce and spinach (it was literally 2 huge heads of romaine and about 4 cups of spinach, which cooked down to nothing)
    Stir gently until softened.

    Add 3 cups chicken stock (or vegetable stock)

    Simmer gently for about 15 minutes.
    Adjust seasonings. At this point I added more cayenne, salt and coriander and also some cumin. Nutmeg could have been good too.
    Let cool a little, then run in batches through food processor.

    Serve up it’s green yummy goodness.

    Total time was about 40 minutes, start to finish.

    I could have added a little heavy cream, or even thrown a potato or two into the soup to thicken it up. I added about 2 tablespoons of 1/2 and 1/2 which was subtle.

    The thing I realized about this soup as I was making it up was that any old greens sitting around in the fridge can be used in this- it’s a great way to use up greens that are past their prime, or if, like us, you have a CSA with unpredictable quantities of things you might not usually eat a lot of (I don’t love romaine as much as many other lettuces).
    –but you need kind of a lot.

    You could also eat it cold.

  9. Jeremy says:

    Cook for myself? Bleh.

    It’s all about the large pho tai (w rare steak) at Hong Phat on Anaheim and Redondo in LB: $5.95.

  10. LP says:

    My go-to quickie dish is spanish omelette: Saute some thinly sliced potatoes and diced onion in olive oil. Make sure they’re cooked through, nice and soft, but turn up the heat a bit if you want your potatoes to have a crispy edge to them. Spoon out any excess oil, then pour in three beaten eggs. Let sit for a few minutes while the eggs cook, then flip to cook the other side. I usually flip over the sink, just in case, though mishaps are fortunately rare.

    You can jazz this up with any number of other ingredients — green peppers, mushrooms, ham, sausage, whatevah. But I find I like the three-ingredient version as much as anything. And who doesn’t have potatoes, onions and eggs in the house even when there’s nothing else?

    Salt and pepper to season. Easy peasy. Mmmmm.

  11. LT says:

    Our favorite quick meal:

    boil whole wheat pasta until al dente (spaghetti is best)
    toss with olive oil, pepper and chili flakes
    add a large hand full of arugula and perhaps some chopped tomatoes
    maybe some toasted pine nuts (if you can afford ’em)
    top with shaved parmigiano reggiano

    de. li. cious.

  12. A stew-like substance that can be built pretty quickly and with whatever’s in your fridge as long as the contents of your fridge include some veggies and meat or non-meat proteiny stuff. Onions are key, everything else is replacable.

    * chopped onion
    * diced carrots
    * meat — chorizo or other sausage is good, or cut up pork or lamb chops. Vegetarians can use eggplant, I should think, or cauliflower or soy product. Cut in bite-size chunks.
    * beer (or wine, or cider)
    * bread — I think soft white bread is ideal.

    Heat some olive oil in a skillet. Add onions and carrots and a little salt. Saute briefly, then add meat or whatever. Cook over medium flame, stirring occasionally, until meat is cooked and onions are caramelized. (This definitely works with sausage, and I’m pretty sure it would work correctly with chops or cruciferous vegetables. Tofu and eggplant, I am less sure about the timing being right.) Deglaze with beer and add enough beer that it will turn into a sauce — I think this is about two Tbsp. but use your judgement. When sauce is reduced, serve over a few slices of bread. The beer you did not use for cooking will come in handy now.

  13. brooke says:

    My favorite stand by is a tofu veggie stir fry. I can get this prepared and in a bowl in under 20 minutes. It goes like this:

    Required: Extra firm tofu, a bunch of broccoli, garlic, chili paste, olive oil, salt, spicy pepper, soy sauce. Optional: cilantro, sesame oil, mushrooms, onion, bell pepper, green pepper.

    Chop up 3 or 4 garlic cloves finely, chop hot pepper (I use frozen serrano) and place in a wok with olive oil on medium heat. While browning, slice up the tofu and drop in. Add sesame oil. Cook and stir occasionally for 5-10 minutes.

    Wash and chop of broccoli (I use the head and stalk), mushrooms, and peppers. When tofu is brown and thoroughly cooked, drop in veggies, add a bit more oil, chile paste, and a teaspoon or two of soy sauce.

    Increase heat and cook until broccoli reaches desired consistency. Add finely chopped cilantro, stir, turn off heat and cover. Serve. Optionally include rice if desired, although that will add time. Leftovers make for yummy lunches.

  14. great answers, some of which i will no doubt seek to replicate in coming wks.

    I realize, though, that I conflated quick meals with comfort food. If you take the time limits away, where do you turn, foodwise, for comfort? meals your mother made? industrialized food that you know is bad for you but you can’t help loving the taste of anyway? fancy restaurants?

  15. in these terms, comfort food for me is pinto beans in a watery soup with onions and diced green chiles. corn bread and honey on the side.

  16. which translates as: food i ate a lot as a child.

  17. Guen says:

    Tonno pasta

    while the water boils for the whole-wheat spaghetti, open a can of Italian tonno [it’s tuna but it tastes much better]–drain tonno olive oil from can into medium heat frying pan: chop up a bunch of garlic and a handful of walnuts; throw into oil and heat up.

    toss it all together: tonno, pasta, oil, garlic and nuts: Add lots of torn fresh basil: can add goat cheese and chopped tomatoes. Buen provecho.

  18. For me, the sets “Good food” and “Comforting food” overlap so closely as to be almost identical. I find it comforting to eat a good meal. If the food is not comforting, I do not enjoy it — the process of learning to enjoy a foodstuff that was previously off-putting and uncomfortable, is exactly the process of learning how to take comfort from it.

  19. Marleyfan says:

    I just had the famous Rasta chili last week (again), cooked by a vivacious, beautiful woman. I think I’ll change my psyudonym to Rasta(chili)fan.

  20. Jenomnibus says:

    Tim makes an incredible roasted chicken with root vegetables – that’s my comfort food of choice. He always uses whole garlic cloves, and whatever root veggies I manage to bring home from the farmer’s market – in the cooler months there are parsnips, turnips, rutabagas, and of course, carrots. Always carrots. YUM! (perhaps we’ll have to come up with a summer version…stay tuned).

  21. We’re still making the transition to “adult” foods from being students; our quick-and-easy meals consist of hot pockets/taquitos. Frozen, bad-for-you stuff. I try really hard to have coherent meals, but sometimes, we’re both so preoccupied that a few seconds is all we have patience for.

    I’m bookmarking this under Recipes.

  22. Where’d Miller go? She’s a fellow student; I wanna know what she thinks.

  23. Mark says:

    Spaghetti noodles with Myzithra cheese and browned butter. Just make sure to keep an eye on the butter, it will turn brown after 10 minutes or so, but you don’t want it to cook too long.

    The kids love it. Not as much as beanie wienies, unfortunately, which is probably THE go-to dish for them.

  24. jeremy says:

    I forgot my favorite, favorite thing to cook, when I do cook: pasta with butter and sage. Any pasta (but preferably some cheese ravioli of some sort) tossed with a melted butter and sage sauce (just melt butter in a saute pan with some sage leaves until butter is golden brown color). Oh man. So good.

    Also, did we already talk about this? In light of the plagiarism post and this one, I was reminded of Cindy McCain’s recent plagiarism of supposed “family recipes,” directly from the Food Network’s website.

  25. Jenomnibus says:

    #23: What is “Myzithra” cheese? Sounds biblical.

  26. swells says:

    I forgot about Myzithra! My go-to order from the Old Spaghetti factory as a kid. Only place I’ve ever seen or heard of it. It was called Homer’s Favorite, or something like that.

  27. Beth W says:

    I’m in a nachos phase right now.

    Beans. Corn chips. Cheese. Broil. Salsa. Eat.

  28. Adriana says:

    Awesome, I’m completely in a rut and in need of some fresh ideas. Thanks everyone.

  29. jeremy says:

    I’ve been totally waiting for Scotty to put up the recipe for Luvsagna, aka Mexican Twinkie Pie. That’s comfort food in the extreme (though not so easy to just throw together, I imagine…)

  30. Mark says:

    My personal favorite quick-n-easy from growing up is beef stroganoff, the way my mother made it.

    brown a pound a ground beef
    add one can of cream of mushroom soup
    add about a cup of sour cream
    add salt and pepper
    pour on top of cooked egg noodles

    Takes about 15 minutes to make and is filling and yummy. I never actually had it with strips of beef or chunks, always with the ground beef, so that’s the way I make it now. Thanks Ma!

  31. Miller says:

    Being a college student, it’s almost cliche to offer Ramen as my quick meal, but I think I keep it classy…

    Ramen, three ways:

    Preparation #1: Using Chile Lime flavored Ramen, cook the noddles according to package directions. Meanwhile, marinate thawed, uncooked frozen shrimp (Trader Joe’s sells frozen shrimp at a decent price) in some olive oil, vinegar of choice, and about a tablesoon of the seasoning, then saute. Drain noodles, leaving only about 1/3 cup of water, then return to stove and add the rest of the seasoning. Top the noodles with the shrimp. Cooking time: 5-10 minutes.

    Preparation 2: Using Oriental flavored Ramen, combine olive oil, rice wine vinegar and seasoning to taste. (This is a dressing, so the amount of each ingredient used will be based on how many you are serving.) In a large bowl, combine romaine lettuce, sliced almonds, chopped mandarine oranges, leftover chicken (if you want to get fancy, season uncooked chicken tenders with the leftover oriental seasoning, then cook in a little oil) and crunched-up noodles. Toss with dressing–fake Asian Chicken salad! Preparation time: 5 minutes if you use leftover chicken; otherwise, 15 minutes.

    Preparation 3: Using Chicken flavored Ramen, cook noodles according to package directions. In a skillet, melt a couple of tablespoons of butter. Add noddles, toss to coat, then add seasoning packet. Top with grated parmesean cheese. Cooking time: 5-10 minutes.

    And I live directly across the street from Taco Bell, so there’s always that…

  32. swells says:

    Anyone else always been a little uncomfortable with that “Oriental flavored Ramen”?

  33. You think “Land of the rising sun Ramen” would be better?

  34. ks says:

    Bryan! Okay, these sun tacos you mention are intriguing. They sound peculiarly delicious–so I must try them soon. I totally put burritos at the top of my list of comfort foods.

    But I have to ask, do you use corn tortillas? And do you add any sort of condiments, or does the miso mix with the vegetable juices enough so that nothing more is needed? Seems like marinated tofu would be a good addition. And I’m curious as to whether miso and really hot habanero sauce go together. (Or would that really mess up the whole recipe and break your heart?)

  35. Mark says:

    I never knew there were flavors of ramen. I always call them by their colors. Blue ramen and brown are my favorites, with orange being a close third. A guy in Seattle wrote a ramen cookbook. That seems a bit much, though the actual preparation of ramen is a beautiful process almost equal to the classic japanese tea ceremony.

    Of course, I finally got over my ramen habit a couple years ago, but still treasure that time of my life.