On Thursday I felt like I needed some comfort food, badly. But before I tell you what I cooked (for lunch and then for dinner) perhaps we can explore the concept of comfort food itself.
I have the concept of difficult food to contrast with comfort food. Difficult food is a dish that might taste good, but is either difficult to prepare (I once made duck à l’orange for HWMBO and boy, was that difficult!), or fiddly to eat. Some Asian food is difficult for me to eat, mainly because I am not familiar with the flavours or textures of the food. Comfort food, on the other hand, is food that is either easy to prepare, or is very easy on the palate. It doesn’t necessarily have to remind you of home, but it allows you to cast off your troubles and cares and concentrate on the pleasure of easy and accomplished cooking and goodness in eating.
Of course, such food is often food that, like Proust’s madeleine, brings you back to other times in your life and gives you pleasure in reminiscing. That’s why I decided to cook creamed onions and American chop suey.
Creamed onions were a part of Hansen Thanksgivings and Christmases for decades. My dad really loved them, and the rest of us came to enjoy them as well. When I saw small onions on sale in the local superstore, I immediately thought “Creamed onions!” and picked up a bag.
The first step is to peel and boil the onions. It’s best to use only enough water in the pot to cover the onions, as later on you’ll be using the onion liquid as part of the cream sauce. Salt the water, and boil the onions until they are tender. Save the liquid.
Mom, bless her cotton socks, short-circuited this step. She used bottled boiled onions—I can’t remember the brand, and Google has been no help. I can’t say that bottled boiled onions would be any worse or any better than raw onions boiled from scratch, so if that’s your fancy, please, go ahead. Heat the bottled onions in their liquid until heated through. Save the liquid.
Now, in a separate pan, make the cream sauce. I won’t be giving exact measurements here, as I don’t use them, I fear. However, what you are basically making is a roux and then adding some of the onion liquid and some milk. Easy!
Take about 2 tablespoons of unsalted butter and melt it in your pan over medium heat. When it’s melted, begin adding flour to the butter in very small amounts, then stirring it until the flour is absorbed. Keep doing this until you’ve added about 2 tablespoons of flour and gotten it incorporated with the butter. The mixture will look a bit like a very small amount of batter. Do not let it burn over the heat.
Now, add about 1/2 cup of the onion liquid to the roux, in small amounts. Stir it around until the mixture is smooth, then add a bit more until you’ve added the entire 1/2 cup. Then add milk or cream (perhaps 2 cups), again in small amounts, and stir until that is smooth. The best way of stirring the nascent cream sauce is to stir in a figure-8 pattern. This scrapes any mixture that is stuck to the pan off and incorporates it into the sauce again. Do not add the milk all at once, as this will create lumps in the sauce.
Now comes the best bit! Continue to stir even after you have added all the milk you want to add. At some point magic will occur, and the cream sauce will change texture. You will be able to feel it in the pan, and see it in the waves that your spoon makes in the sauce. It will change from a milky solution to a thick cream sauce, in the space of a minute or two. Presto! I can’t say how long it will take, as it depends on how much flour you used and how hot your gas is. You’ll just have to keep stirring and wait for it. The chemical explanation for this is that the flour, which you have first cooked in the butter and then added liquids to, expands and takes in the liquid, thus thickening it.
Now that you have the sauce, strain the onions and add them to the cream sauce and just heat them through. Taste the sauce and correct for seasoning. I only use salt and pepper, but some use other seasonings such as nutmeg. Use whatever works for you. There is a school of thought that only white pepper should be used in a dish with cream or white sauce, so as not to spoil the “looks” of the dish. I use ground black pepper—so you know where I stand on that.
Now American Chop Suey is, apparently, what this meat and macaroni dish is called in New England. In other parts of the country it’s called Macaroni and Beef; perhaps that’s how you remember it.
I believe that Hamburger Helper is one way to make this dish, and that’s OK. But my Mom never used Hamburger Helper, so I don’t either. Anyway, you can’t get Hamburger Helper here in the United Kingdom.
Chop Suey (from Wikipedia: Chinese: 杂碎; pinyin: zá suì; literally “assorted pieces”) is a good description of this dish. All sorts of stuff gets sautéed, then tomatoes and macaroni are added and cooked until the macaroni is done. Simple!
Start off with minced garlic, chopped onion, green bell pepper, celery, and mushrooms. Sauté them in a little olive oil in a large pot, just until they are softish. If you’d rather not have your hands smell of garlic you can use garlic powder—I won’t tell! If you don’t have any celery or mushrooms, don’t make a special trip. However, don’t leave out the garlic, onions, or bell pepper if you can help it. (To my friend who is allergic to bell peppers—you get a pass on the peppers!)
While the vegetables are cooking away, in a large frying pan crumble a pound or two of hamburger meat/chopped beef/minced beef (in the UK) and fry it in a little olive oil until it’s brownish and the fat is mostly cooked out of it. Drain the meat and add it to the vegetables. Mix them a bit and add a couple of cans of chopped tomatoes and a container of tomato purée (what is called passata here in the UK). Mix again, and add oregano, basil, salt, and pepper. It will be soupy, but that doesn’t matter.
Add around a pound of uncooked macaroni. You could add any number of pasta types, except for spaghetti, linguini, or any other long spaghetti-form pasta. Fusilli, shells, you name it—all of these are pretty good. But spaghetti wouldn’t cook. Now reduce the heat, cover, and cook until the pasta is tender and most of the liquid is absorbed. Stir it occasionally to prevent burning on the bottom of the pot. Serve with a baguette and some grated Parmesan cheese, with a salad on the side. Comfort!
The last time I cooked this for my brother and sister, I was about to put the (uncooked) macaroni into the pot when my brother said, “Hey, why are you doing that? Mom always boiled the macaroni first.” Brotherly harmony prevented further conflict, but I wonder whether my wonderful readers have any comments on this question. I have never boiled the macaroni first, as I find that the pasta absorbs the goodness of the tomatoes as it cooks and the sauce itself thickens until it’s almost just a coating for the macaroni. That’s the way I like it. How do you like it? (Psssst! American chop suey is one of the greatest leftovers going! It tastes even better the second day (in my opinion, anyway!).)
So that was my comfort food for Thursday. HWMBO liked it too, which always makes me feel warm inside. Cooking for your family works well when they sense how your love for them is poured into the food you cook for them. There is nothing better than sitting down and sharing simple food and conversation over the table. That is real comfort food, no matter what you’re serving.