Familiar food offers comfort during times of uncertainty

April 16, 2003|By Rob Kasper

WASHINGTON - Could it be that the nation's era of nutritional nagging is over?

Marian Burros thinks it is possible.

"I think people have incorporated healthful foods into their diets. But they don't feel the need to talk about it. And every so often, they want comfort food," she said.

And so Burros, who over her three-decade career has authored cookbooks emphasizing quickly prepared, low-fat dishes, now has written one laden with comfort food. Recipes for meatloaf, tomato soup and toasted cheese sandwiches are in Cooking For Comfort (Simon & Schuster, 2003, $24).

The inspiration for this book came when Burros, a food columnist with The New York Times, noticed that in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, she and others began cooking the foods of their childhood. These were foods that made them feel safe. Suddenly even the rail-thin women in Manhattan, a friend told her, were eating chicken potpie.

At the same time, Burros observed that many restaurant chefs had changed cooking styles. Instead of turning out complicated, towering culinary statements, chefs were serving simpler fare, one-story dishes made with locally grown goods.

So Burros, who has two grandchildren, found herself dusting off the old recipes, including some from her mother's Waterbury, Conn., kitchen.

She made coffeecake, waffles and tomato soup. She "goosed up the flavor with herbs and spices." Ingredients like butter and cream, which in the low-fat era were kept at a distance, were back in the picture, sharing a pot with newcomers like oven-roasted vegetables.

I cooked several dishes from Cooking for Comfort. Then last week, Burros and I had lunch - mezze, small plates of apricot fritters, lamb and eggplant, spanakopita - at Zaytinya, a restaurant near Washington's MCI Center.

Burros splits her workweek between Washington and New York.

In a wide-ranging interview, she touched on issues from the war in Iraq - cooking familiar dishes, she said, is one way we have of coping with international uncertainties - to the size of supermarket produce sections.

When we circled the topic of healthful eating, Burros smiled at the notion that now the power of the "food police" is waning. These are groups who advocate - some would say nag - Americans to eat less fat and more broccoli.

The nation is still paying attention to nutrition, she said, but it doesn't want to be scolded.

One centerpiece of good nutrition, she said, is making dishes, even comfort foods, with fresh ingredients. Cooking a meal at home can have therapeutic benefits as well, a fact Burros was reminded of when she began working with her mother's recipes.

"I had forgotten how much I enjoyed cooking when I don't have to rush," she said. In her earlier cookbooks, she had set goals of getting a meal on the table in less than half an hour. But when working on Cooking for Comfort, Burros took the time to stop and smell the sauteing onions.

"Part of the charm of cooking," she said, is sniffing kitchen aromas, or looking out the kitchen window as you stir a pot.

The familiar fragrances of the kitchen fill your mind, she said, with "amorphous pleasant thoughts" - not such a bad thing, she noted, in a world racked by terrorism and war.

The aromas also trigger nostalgia, memories of meals and relatives gone by. The aroma of coffeecake, she said, reminded her of the way her mother prepared for visitors. "Every time I walked into my mother's house and smelled coffeecake," Burros said, "I knew company was coming."

While working with the old recipes, Burros incorporated modern cooking techniques and ingredients.

For instance, to liven up the flavor of tomato soup, she roasted tomatoes in the oven before tossing them in the soup pot. When it came time to put a type of grated cheese, along with pecans and herbs, on the pieces of oven-baked chicken, she was able to use fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano, not the canned stuff that passed for parmesan years ago.

The results of this union of old recipes and new ingredients were delicious.

The tomato soup I made with canned Italian tomatoes that were roasted in the oven was remarkable. Its strong flavor reminded me of a soup I make in August when the tomatoes are fresh from the garden. The chicken, coated with ground pecans, cheese and herbs, then baked was ideal, soothing Sunday night fare. Or as the teen-ager said as he came back for his third helping, "Awesome chicken."

Cream of Tomato Soup

Serves 6 to 8

three 28-ounce cans whole tomatoes, packed in liquid, liquid reserved (see note)

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 cup finely chopped onion

2 tablespoons flour

2 cups good-quality chicken stock or broth

1/4 cup full-bodied dry white wine

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 tablespoon sugar

salt to taste

3/4 cup heavy cream

Place the oven rack in top one-third of the oven. Preheat to 450 degrees. Line a jellyroll pan or rimmed cookie sheet with foil.

Put the tomatoes from 2 cans in a single layer on the pan. Roast the tomatoes for 30 minutes. Remove them from the sheet, peel off any foil and cut off any browned parts. Cut each tomato in half.

Melt the butter in the bottom of a heavy-bottomed pot. Saute the onions over medium heat for 10 minutes, until the onions are soft. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the flour.

Return the pan to medium heat and whisk in the chicken stock. Stir in the 2 cups of reserved tomato liquid, the wine, tomato paste, lemon juice, sugar and roasted tomatoes. Bring to boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Remove the tomatoes from the soup, place them in a food processor with some of the liquid and puree. Set them aside and puree the rest of the mixture; combine in pot, season with salt.

Warm the soup over low heat. Add the cream and stir to blend. Serve hot.

Note: Save the tomatoes from the third can for another use.

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