Comfort Foods and Comfort Places
This weekend I got to go back to my alma mater for the first time since graduating. It was SUPER exciting, because I was back to hear Hillary Clinton speak (What!?! Right?!?)! But it was also pretty great to see a lot of friends I haven’t seen since graduation. I saw many faces I’ve missed and I caught up with some of my very favorite people in the world. I ALSO learned that I am too old for college. Or at least for college parties. It’s amazing how quickly after graduating the events that made up the entirety of your social life don’t seem that appealing any more :p Don’t get me wrong, it was great to be back, and to go to those things. But when I think of the high points from this weekend, they don’t really include parties. They include seeing the campus I lived in and loved for four years and catching up with wonderful people.
One of my favorite parts of this weekend was staying at a dear friend’s farm. Not only was it GREAT to not be crashing on a dorm room floor/couch, but her parents are two of the nicest people I have ever met. And for me, staying in an old farmhouse has special sentimentality, since it certainly reminds me of my own home in many ways. PLUS, since it’s an active farm, there are a BAJILLION barn kitties around. I became obsessed. I could not stop myself from snuggling ALL of the kittens. And then I met a grey fluffy lump named Lint and I fell completely in love. I’ve been away from her for maybe 12 hours and I’ve been staring at my photos all day reminiscing about snuggling this sweet little kitty. Sigh. Someday.
Since I regard both my alma mater and my friend’s home as serious “comfort places,” it only felt right to write a bit about comfort food. So with that in mind, let’s have a little chat about homemade mac and cheese.
As I have mentioned before, cheese and I are in a serious, long-term relationship. And that is how I know BF and I are meant to be– he’s the only person on this Earth to love cheese as much as I do, or maybe more. So unsurprisingly, mac and cheese goes over pretty well in our little apartment. And is probably made too much. But who’s to say what “too much” means, anyway? Right?? No? Hello??
The beauty of mac and cheese is that it’s SO easy, and stovetop mac and cheese comes together very quickly. All you need is a béchamel and some pasta, and then a little decoration. The only thing I will say on the pasta front (since I KNOW you have that part down) is that I recently learned that resting a spoon across a pot of boiling water will keep it from boiling over. WHAT?? Did everyone else know this and they just forgot to tell me?? Probably. But I’m pretty excited. So if you think you have a potential boil-over sitch, try this trick and prepare to be AMAZED.
Now, when it comes to Béchamel, there’s no reason to be intimidated because it sounds snooty and French. It has three ingredients. Three! All you need is equal parts butter and flour, plus a few cups of some kind of milk (I use 1 T. of butter & flour per cup of milk– you can adjust this if you’re worried about thickness, but I’ve never found that this ends in runniness at all). Whether you choose to do cream, skim milk, or anything in between is entirely up to you. I can personally vouch that using skim works as well as cream– things thicken up no matter what you use, so if you’re looking to cut some calories/fat, don’t feel like you’re cutting down on the quality of the end result too. Melt the butter and whisk in the flour to create a roux (more deceptively hard-sounding French!). Cook just for a minute or two to get rid of that flour-y taste, and then whisk in your milk. Bring the mixture to a boil and then reduce to a low simmer, whisking fairly frequently to ensure that the mixture is incorporating smoothly. You COULD stop right here and have a nice bechamel if you wanted, but let’s be honest. You’re in this for the cheese. Or at least I am.
After you’ve reduced the sauce, add in spices (read: lots of pepper) and a few handfuls of whatever cheese floats your boat, and stir til incorporated. For this particular evening I used a mix of crumbled gorgonzola and shredded cheddar, but it’s always a free-for-all. I’m pretty sure it’s impossible to go wrong with cheese, so use whatever you’ve got!
Add your cooked (unboiled-over) pasta to the sauce and stir. Voila! That’s it. The whole process takes maybe 20 minutes, and I’m being generous. I highly recommend adding in some veggies to make things both more exciting and healthier. If you’re using frozen veggies, toss them in with the boiling pasta for the last 2 minutes of cooking, and drain them together.
I included some blistered tomatoes I had lying around as well. As evidenced by the amazing combo of grilled cheese and tomato soup, cheese and tomato just plain belong together. So you should also seriously consider tossing some tomatoes into your dish.
Now that it’s winter, comfort food is acceptable to make again, I guess. I don’t know. I make comfort food all year long, so I’m the wrong person to ask. But according to the sorts of people who say you’re only allowed to wear white a few months of the year, it’s ok to eat comfort food now. I think such things are a bunch of hooey. Though I will say it MIGHT have been a good idea to keep white pants and comfort food in different seasons, but I digress…
Since I’m doing posts a little less frequently during the school year, I might be continuing the trend I started last week of cramming multiple recipes into one post. Or at least this time I am. I mean, I can’t do a post on comfort food and not say anything about dessert. What am I, a monster??
Last week at the farmer’s market, I saw TONS of peaches. What’s that about?? Where I’m from, peach season is late July/early August. So I’m not really sure what’s going on here, but I’m also not going to look a gift horse in the mouth. The peaches were definitely not ripe, so I couldn’t put them to use until the day before BF and I left for the weekend. The downside of that is not getting to eat peaches for breakfast all week. The upside is “having” to put all the peaches in a crisp. Boo hoo, what a travesty.
Crisps are SUPER easy and a big reward for little effort (seriously, everybody loves fruit crisps). You can make them with almost any fruit, so if you don’t have a random, freak peach crop near you, don’t fret. It just so happens that apples also make EXCELLENT crisps, and they also happen to be in season. So, you know. It ALSO also happens that I bought a giant bag of apples at the Cider Mill this weekend and finished the peach crisp when I got home, leaving a big, crisp-shaped void in my heart. I don’t think that’s a coincidence…
To make a Fruit Crisp, heat oven to 350 and mix about 4 c. sliced peaches (or other fruit) with 1 T. flour. Stir together 1/2 c. flour, 2/3 c. brown sugar, 1/2 t. baking powder, 1/4 t. cinnamon (be generous), and a pinch of salt. Knead in 3 T. unsalted butter with your fingers til you have a fairly homogenous, mealy mixture. Sprinkle this mixture over the top of the peaches in a baking dish and bake for 30 minutes or til bubbly and golden and it smells so good that you can’t stand it.
The beauty of these two comfort foods is that they’re both easy. You gotta love getting a lot of flavor bang for your effort buck! Crisps/Crumbles/Buckles/etc. are also a great coping mechanism for not having time to bake pies and being sad about it. Just FYI. But great as these two recipes (or any other recipe for that matter) are, they can’t quite compete with the comforts of the places you love and the people who made them special. I’m so glad I got the chance to revisit some of those memories this weekend. Now, back to the grindstone! It’s a good thing DC is pretty great too.