Tag Archives: Comfort Food

Gumbo with Ham Hock and Shrimp

Gumbo with Ham Hock and Shrimp

I was lucky to be involved in many projects when I was teaching requiring travel to many areas of the U.S. and what I  enjoyed about each experience was that after a brain draining day of work — often dealing with a three-hour time difference — we’d wander in small groups to shop, take a tour of something interesting if it was available, and most often enjoy local cuisine.  Although it has been many years, I was able to visit New Orleans twice for two different projects, and on one of the trips happened across a tiny red book called The Little Gumbo Book by Gwen McKee.

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Pork and Cabbage Soup


Pork and Cabbage Soup

When I think back on most years of my life, I am able to remember being sick once every year or two — and when I started teaching — every year.  Sometimes, it went on for more than two months, lingering, wearing me down, leaving me longing for a chest that felt free of the elephant that seemed to be sitting on it, and the racking cough that left my ribs sore from the exertion — sometimes even cracking them.  I’ve never been told I have a chronic illness, but if I had,  I wonder whether it would have changed anything.  I know when I’m getting sick.

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Steak and Guinness Pie

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about locally grown food lately — not unusual for me by any means,  but my thoughts have just been more intensely focused.  So it shouldn’t be unusual for an article like “Butchers’ Banquet:  England’s Lincolnshire Wolds” published in the October 2011 issue of Saveur to have an impact on me.  I’m always looking for truly good recipes for traditional food, and even though I’m not British, I have solid connections.   In 1881 at the age of three, my great-grandfather sailed with his family from Newport, Wales to San Francisco hoping to find inexpensive land where his family might grow apples.  But that’s a story for another day.

This is more about the group of men mentioned in the article who have gotten together over years and years to enjoy a Sunday meal each week.  They know where the food has been grown, how it’s been grown, and have prepared it to showcase its quality.  Of course, it helps that they’re in the business.  I’d like to be invited to a table like that to hear the talk and understand more about what they know.  I’ll work on that from here in San Diego and maybe, just maybe, by the end of this year, I’ll know more about the more than 6,000 farms in our county and the farmers who tend them.

In the meantime, I thought I’d share these great Steak & Guinness pies with you.  My father-in-law loves Stilton and will jump at any excuse to tuck his napkin into his shirt and cozy up to a plate of hot food like this with a pint.  The recipe isn’t challenging, but does take some time, so plan ahead.  It’s worth it.

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Cabbage Rolls

If you’ve asked a kid recently what his or her favorite food is, the likelihood of pizza or hamburgers being the response is fairly high.  But if you probed a bit expecting some thought about food coming from their own house — food that didn’t come from a box, frozen package, or needing to be microwaved, it could be a different story. Macaroni and cheese may be mentioned, and perhaps tacos or spaghetti  — unless the kid is like my youngest who surprised me when he was about eight with “mussels and clams in white wine sauce” after trying them at a restaurant in Monterey.   The chance of cabbage rolls topping his or any kid’s list is slim to none,  yet they were one of my favorites.

Maybe it was the tomatoes.

When I think about it, tomatoes factored into most of my favorite childhood dishes:  spaghetti, goolash (I’ll save that one for another day), stuffed bell peppers — yes, and pizza.  I love tomatoes in just about any form, so you can imagine my horror when I discovered other cabbage roll lovers enjoyed theirs prepared with sauerkraut.


I do like sauerkraut, because it is cabbage, and cabbage plays a pretty important role in, well, cabbage rolls.  But my palate suggests sauerkraut belongs on my favorite kind of hot dog — one that’s loaded with mustard, lots of onions, chili with beans, and a dollop of sauerkraut.  Bear in mind there should be so much of that tasty combo of flavors, the actual dog has to be difficult to find under it all or it hasn’t been made properly.

Cabbage rolls must be similarly slathered in tomatoes.

Although my version of cabbage rolls isn’t quite like those my mother made, stuffed with ground beef and rice, it’s close enough.  I’ve substituted turkey, wheat berries instead of rice, and sneaked in a bit of tangy feta.  Easy on the budget, very good for your body, not a challenge to put together — especially ahead of time — get your picky eaters to help you prepare it, and who knows?  You may have a convert on your hands.

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I think the first time I heard anyone mention cassoulet, it was Martha Stewart years ago in the first version of her television show.  Outside of remembering that the main ingredients were white beans and a huge amount of meat for what could be classified as a one pot meal, I know she described it as one of her traditional holiday party menu items.  I also remember wondering how a preparing a pot of beans could be so involved.  Really?

Now I know.

To say that cassoulet is simply a bean stew or “dried beans and meat” is humorous because I grew up eating what could be called bean stew.  Beans go in a pot with few additional ingredients and not much attention.  Time goes by and a tasty dinner is served.  Bear in mind in this scenario, the bean to meat ratio is in favor of the legumes.  Cassoulet is anything but that, but I’m thinking it shouldn’t have to be.  At the same time, if I set out to make one of the many recipes I glanced at for “easy” cassoulet I’d feel I’d cheated somehow.  Perhaps I’d have something with flavor similar to cassoulet, but I’d miss out on what I often enjoy so much about tackling an involved recipe for the first time:  all the thinking I do.  There’s something very gratifying about methodically working through a recipe that takes some thought and effort.

I’ll confess this all began with a small jar of duck fat I brought back from England recently.  I saw it and knew it would remind me of all the possibilities, so tucked it well into my suitcase until we arrived home, then stored it in the fridge to think about.  Many traditional versions of cassoulet are made with duck fat, but I needed a recipe that wasn’t swimming in it, which means I would need to choose a recipe lacking in, well, duck — or more specifically, duck confit.  My little jar’s quantity wasn’t nearly enough to make that.

Some may say a duckless cassoulet is sacrilege, but I know the recipe I chose, which uses tomatoes and a bread crumb topping, could also invite that complaint.  Cassoulet is a dish originally from the Languedoc region in Southern France, with the towns of  Castelnaudary, Toulouse and Carcassonne all claiming credit for its creation and there are as many variations as there are village cooks in that region.  Originally, I’d considered floundering through a Toulouse Cassoulet until I came to my senses realizing I hadn’t the time I needed to construct it.

I made the cassoulet, but I confess that I did not break the “film” that develops over it while it cooks seven times, so evidently, I did not create anything perfect.  Rich, yes.  Perfect, no.  With respect to all that’s good about home cooking, and for someone like me who truly enjoys the process of constructing a dish like this, it’s a great reason to gather a group of special friends for a special meal just because.

Especially on a cold winter’s day.

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