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March 15, 2010

Alinea at Home: Comfort Food (Bison, braised pistachios, potato, sweet spices)

I bought my house just over twelve years ago, and I remember my first night here as clearly as if it were yesterday.  I didn't sleep at all -- partly because I was sleeping somewhere new, and that meant new smells, new sounds, and just a whole new feel... not to mention it was the first major investment I'd ever made, and those numbers on the closing sheet leapt from the page into the worry area of my brain and cascaded down the inside of my eyelids like a cruel hybrid of Tetris and The Matrix as I tried to fall asleep.

The second night in my house, it rained... and the sound of that hard pouring rain completely washed away the fear of owning a home. It washed away the digital shower of numbers in my brain, the weird sounds and smells, and it calmed me completely. I've always loved the sound of rain -- and, there's something about the way it sounds when it lands on my roof, or hits the muddy ground or the leaves of my hydrangea bushes just outside the living room window.

We had quite a lovely sunny, warm streak of weather last week, which melted all the snow, but for the past three days, it's done nothing but rain. Dreary, gray skies, and a steady ploploploplopdropdripdripdrop all day and all night. I love it. I loved it even more because it had been a week where that kind of soothing noise was very much needed... one of those weeks where I worked from the minute I woke up until my head hit the pillow at night.

My phone rang non-stop and email poured in. There were new clients to pitch, brainstorms to be had, things to write, conference calls to conduct, deadlines to meet, projects to deliver. Some things took off beautifully while others stalled or got postponed or rushed or canceled or left in limboland. And while I was working, I kept noticing things around the house that needed to be done. Errands to be run. Pet projects I want to start. Things I want to cook. Photos to organize. Things I want to write. People I want to talk to. Books I want to read. Magazines I want to peruse. Friends and family I want to see.

Working from home is usually something I love and am really grateful for. But last week, I wished I had a job and an office I could leave in the evening so that work was work and home was home.

I didn't sleep well at all last week, because my brain was still trying to work while I was trying to sleep. And when it wasn't my own thoughts waking me up in a cold sweat, it was the herd of ten or eleven deer that, every night, makes their way from the woods next to my house, through my front yard, over the garden wall just below my bedroom window (they huff and snort, and thonk and clack their hooves on the wall as they leap over), and meander around my neighbor's garden just outside the other bedroom window.

Again, grateful for the work and the business I've built over the past nine years, but I was more physically and mentally drained by Friday afternoon than I've been in a long, long time. I knew I needed to shut off that part of my brain for just two days (something I rarely allow myself do). So, late Friday afternoon, I went across the street to my friend Linda's house to sit by the fire with a glass of wine, many snacks, and played a mean game of cards with my friends.

On Saturday, I spent a good part of the day reading my friend, Tara's book, The Butcher and the Vegetarian.  I loved the book because it "sounds" just like Tea when she talks.  I'd also recently re-read my dear friend, Laurie's book, Saving Henry.  Both books are so personal and so beautifully written, and yet both books also deal with profound struggle on so many levels. Throughout, both Tea and Laurie maintain a sense of hope and courage and a fierce determination I admire.

I spent a lot of time Saturday afternoon thinking about Tara and Laurie and how their stories weighed heavily on my heart, and that, heaped onto my already-exhausted self, made me sorely in need of some serious comfort food.

I've written quite a bit about my love of cooking for others.  I love to show people how I feel about them by cooking for them.  But it's not often enough that I care about myself that way.  Yes, I cook nearly every day for myself, and yes, I actually do eat at my dining room table many nights.  But, it had been a very long time since I'd spent an hour or so in the kitchen making something just for me.

I needed to cook something that was comforting, yet wouldn't make me feel like crap three hours later as it sat there in my stomach like a lump (hey there, mac and cheese) (also, bag of Swedish fish).  I didn't want to slap anything together in a hurry.  I wanted to take my time and really pay attention to what I was doing.

So, I adapted the Bison, braised pistachios, potatoes, sweet spices dish.  There was nothing difficult about making the dish as it was in the book.  I'd already bought all the ingredients and was ready to let 'er rip.  But, I decided to adapt it because I wanted something that felt like dinner, not a tasting menu item, and I wanted it to taste like something that was mine, only better.

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In addition to the bison tenderloin thawing in the fridge for this dish, I'd already begun to dry-age a six-ounce bison tenderloin in the fridge, thinking I'd eat it Sunday night. I love prepping meat this way -- I rinse it, thoroughly dry it, salt it, and stick it on a plate for 4 or 5 days in the fridge, uncovered.  It gets all hard and tough on the outside, which gives it a lovely sear when you put it in the pan, and it cooks more evenly.

I poured a little canola oil into a stainless-steel saute pan, heated it on medium for about 3 minutes, then placed the bison tenderloin in the pan, searing it on all sides (took about 10 minutes).  Then, I put it (still in the pan) in a 450-degree oven for 5-7 minutes.

I made mashed potatoes (my own personal favorite comfort food) by boiling some Yukon Golds, then mashing them (skins on) in the Kitchen Aid mixer, along with some whole milk, unsalted butter, and sea salt.  No measurements. I've been making mashed potatoes for so long, I do it completely unconsciously now, and they're always perfect.

I also sauteed some Swiss chard with carrots, shallots, and pistachios in butter and olive oil, along with some curry powder (dash), cinnamon (pinch), thyme (sprig), allspice (trace amount), salt, and pepper. Oh, I wish you all could've been in my kitchen to smell this as it came together.

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I poured a glass of water and a glass of Malbec, and sat and ate that dinner at my table in the dining room... no music... no television... no books or magazines.  Just me, my dinner, and the sound of the rain on the roof.

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The bison was cooked a perfect medium-rare.  So flavorful and robust, without being overly rich or heavy.  And let me tell you -- the tiny amounts of spices I put in that vegetable dish blended so beautifully with the carrots, shallots, and chard, and the pistachios were so tender, they fit right in, texturally.  This dinner had all the elements of the original dish in the book, just done a little differently.

As I cleared the table and started loading the dishwasher, my friend, Chris, called to see if I wanted to grab a drink or see a movie.  I'd bought a bottle of Caol Ila I hadn't yet opened, so I told him to come over for some scotch and a movie.  It was the perfect way to end the evening.

Sunday morning came, and for the first time in a long time, the whole daylight-saving-losing-an-hour-of-sleep-thing didn't bother me.  I credit dinner the night before.  I slept really well and loved the feel of the rain on my messy morning hair as I plodded in my new slippers* down the front sidewalk to pick up the New York Times from the edge of the yard.  I made a pot of coffee as I got started on the crossword puzzle (which I'm now able to do every day of the week without looking up any of the clues -- one of those life list goals.  I know.  NERD.).

I emptied the dishwasher and got ready for the day.  I felt really good about the dinner the night before, but still felt like I needed to be taken care of a bit more.  This week is going to be as mentally draining as last week, so I thought it would be good to get the heck out of Washington for the day... away from my phone and my laptop and all the things in my house nagging to be done.  I also really wanted someone else to cook for me, and I wanted it to be Carlos.

Carlos Barroz is from Cordoba, Argentina, and is the chef at one of my favorite restaurants in the little beach town I go to every summer.  He's a good friend and a great cook, and he and two of his best friends (also dear friends of mine) just opened a new restaurant, Hoof + Fin, in Philadelphia.  I wanted meat and I wanted chimichurri, but I also wanted raw fish.  And I wanted to see his new restaurant.  And, even though it was raining, I also really wanted to drive.  I wanted a few hours of uninterrupted time to clear my head, listen to podcasts, and daydream.

So, I hit the road and made it to Philly in record time.  Um, I mean, I, uh, drove 55 the whole way, MOM, and made it there in exactly the time I should have.  (only not)  (I have a lead foot)   I cruised up I-95, and as the highway split to 495 toward Philadelphia, off to the right was the Delaware Memorial Bridge, which just broke my face into this huge, uncontrollable smile.  That's my bridge.  That's the bridge that, when I cross it, means I'm just an hour and a half from kicking off my shoes, running in the sand, turning my face toward the sun, and standing ankle-deep in the ocean, grinning from ear-to-ear.  (one of my favorite things in the world) (but I digress) (and what's up with all these parentheticals I'm doing) (I need to knock it off)

I puttered around Old City and Queen Village for a bit, then headed over to the restaurant for an early dinner.  If you live in or near Philadelphia, I hope you'll stop by and eat at Hoof + Fin.  It's a great space, and the food is... well..... wow.

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I started with the fluke carpaccio (sorry for the crap iPhone photo quality), which was raw fluke, radish, red onion, clementines, red chiles, and a truffle-lime-lemon juice :

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Carlos then followed that with a giant plate o' meat: skirt steak, short ribs, chorizo, sweetbreads, ribeye, lamb, some chimichurri, as well as a stack of frites topped with an over-easy egg, and a side of parsnip puree:

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Holy wow. 

And, exactly what I needed.

I sent back an empty plate, but for the bones.

>urp<

*   *   *   *   *

I know what I made on Saturday night was not the exact dish from the book, but it encompassed all of the flavors, and they all came together in a way I didn't expect at all.  In fact, this dish -- and the adaptation of it, really -- came at a time I didn't expect to need it, but found out I really did.

In fact, if you'd told me when I started this blog back in October 2008 whether I thought anything in this book could ever remotely resemble comfort food, I'd have told you to put down the crack pipe.

And now I know I'm wrong.  Happily so, in fact.  Usually, this book challenges and expands the ways in which I think about food.  But this weekend, this cookbook calmed, comforted, and soothed me.  Used to be that a grilled cheese sandwich was my go-to comfort food.  Now, it's something Alinea-inspired.  I like that.  I like that a lot.

What do you do when you need to be comforted and cared for?  Do you cook?  If so, what?  Or, do you want others to cook something for you?  Neither?  Both?  (I'm in the "both" camp)

Do tell.... I'd love to know.

Up Next: Bison, beets, blueberries, burning cinnamon

Resources: Bison from Gunpowder Bison & Trading; vegetables from the Takoma Park/Silver Spring Co-op.

Read My Previous Post:  Pushed foie gras, sauternes, pear, chervil

* I got new slippers!  Because I am a dork who falls when she wears old, tread-worn slipper socks!  Yay!  Thanks, Mom and Dad.

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I want to thank you for this post. I can't really pin my feelings down, but reading it was satisfying, calming, in a "it's-gonna-be-alright" kind of way.

I sympathize with you being awfully busy and not able to shut yourself down - in my case, I quit my boyfriend (on friendly terms) and now have to organise and coordinate his and my move into different appartments in addition to my study work and duties at home, and I'm feeling pretty overwhelmed sometimes. Last night I tried to sleep in the half-empty old appartment (he moved earlier than me and took the bed with him, so I have to sleep on the couch) and lay awake, tossing and turning for four hours before finally falling asleep.
Uhm, when did this comment turn into a whining festival? Sorry - anyway, reading your post felt like taking a deep, deep breath. All my cooking things are already squared away so I can't really whip anything up for myself, but this really is the next best thing!

I don't care all that much for molecular gastronomy, but this dish... I feel like I can taste it through the net.

Anyhow, please excuse all my blubbering, Carol, and thank you for this wonderful post!

I loved the heck out of this post! Just had to tell you that.

And I can confess that, although I am a passionate home cook, when I feel the need to care for myself, my go-to meal is totally embarrassing - that gooey queso dip that you make by nuking Velveeta and salsa - YIKES, but that with a big handful of salty tortilla chips, eaten in front of whatever happens to be on Bravo at the time - bliss...

This week-end it was grilled Black Forest Ham and Havarti on some really great Italian bread. Sorry about mentioning gluten, but it was sublime. I grill both sides of the bread, and even did a small variation with feta cheese. It was something I could have on the table in 15 minutes after working a retail-weekend. My local deli has a dill potato(e) salad that makes it seem like I had the day off to cook.

I (like the others above who already have) want to thank you for this post. Great read. I'd say in the realm of a "comfort read". I've lived in Maryland and D.C. during a few summer internships back in college and I always remember that drive back toward NY. Between your descriptions of that, the dinner (which is roughly eqivalent to my comfort meal), scotch (which I have to try) and a movie in, I felt like I was in another place (i.e. not at work in another country).

I also couldn't believe how long I've been reading your blog (or what year it is for that matter) when you reminded us that you started this back in Oct '08! This ranks as one of my favorite posts between FLAH and AAH, keep it up!!

In the last photograph, the one with you and your new non-slippy slippies, your copy of Alinea looks fairly untarnished for being put through so much. Mine is pulling apart from the spine after only a few months, the cover is unrecognizable, and half of the pages are stuck together with honey and duck pate. Is that a decoy for the photo, or the copy that you cook from? I mean come on, there isn't even a grease spot to be found on yours.

-----------------> Alex, believe it or not, it *is* the copy I cook from. I'm such a control freak in the kitchen, that I keep the book kinda protected when I use it. It is starting to have some breaks in the spine, which is always good, and the cover it came with is totally trashed and now in the garbage. And, on the inside, there are a few pages that stick together. By the time I'm done, I'm sure it'll look completely different. :)

Excellent post. A great reminder that it's not just the food that makes your blog worth following.

I think ultimately a cookbook has truly succeeded when you assimilate the essence of a dish rather than the exact thing. To totally force the Matrix metaphor, once you understand the code, you can reconfigure anything to suit your mood. And that's why this worked so well- you did what YOU wanted, not what the book told you to.

I'm having a very unpleasant Monday morning and took a mid-morning break to read your Alinea update, and I'm so glad I did. Loved this post.

When I need to be comforted by food it's one of two ways - I'll make myself a super-gooey grilled cheese sandwhich with slices of Kraft's American cheese and accompany it with a glass of milk and plenty of self-pity. OR if I'm lucky enough I'll indulge in Mom's homemade chicken and dumplings. Nothing on earth like Mom's homemade chicken and dumplings - and Mom sitting with you while you're eating them reminding you how much she loves you and what a strong wonderful woman you really are... even if you're 38 and haven't lived at home in twenty years and have a husband and a home of your own.

I gotta go call my mom now.

What a wonderful post; what's funny is that sometimes, when I want to be comforted, I come to your blog, where the mix of food, pop culture, humor, and your writing style combine to take some of the edge off of a stressful day for me. (Of course, anyone who likes a movie that has Bailey Salinger as one-half of a closeted couple is OK in my book...hee!)

As far as food, I find comfort in a seasonal soup or a long braise that fills the house with amazing aromas - or a trip down the street to our "English" pub for a pint and some Bangers and Mash.

As always, thank you, Carol.

I didn't think I could enjoy anything more than a bison discussion, but that egg is the most beautiful thing I've seen in days.

Like others, I loved this post.

When I was a kid, whenever there was chaos or a crisis at home, my dad would cook our go-to dinner: eggs with bacon and toast. We would each have the eggs our way, often not the same way. It was always just the right thing. It came to mean comfort to all 3 of us (me, mom and dad), and to this day, when I need comfort, I turn to bacon-eggs-and-toast (which should be one word because, for me, they always go together). It makes me feel wrapped in love even when I'm alone.

Sounds like you did exactly what you needed to do to recharge. Cooking is a gift that I give myself too. We've had an awful past six weeks that started with my formerly perfectly healthy 87 yr old mother tripping over my snow boot on Superbowl Sunday. She's back at home now with round the clock help which she hates and I've been doing the cooking for her, trying to make things that will feed us and that I can take to her. It's been exhausting and by last Friday, I was fried and getting sick myself. Naturally, I need to cook some comfort food. I spent a long time trimming a hunk of lamb shoulder, browning the chunks and simmering them with wine and stock, onions and garlic. Then I added carrots, more onions, a potato, herbs, more wine and we had lovely Irish lamb stew with crusty bread that night. And roasted brussels sprouts. Sometimes you just need to cook and sometimes what you need to cook (and eat) is comfort food.

Mashed potatos must have mashed potatos when I am sad.

So glad you had the weekend you needed!

Up until recently, my 'just for me' meal was a big bowl of soba noodles in that broth that I should make from scratch but buy in a bottle in the asian store. But now it's a faux-risotto with chicken - Riso alla Pitoca (sp?) - I picked up from an episode of Lydia on PBS. Arborio rice, chicken, butter, parmesan... I could eat the whole batch myself.

Damn, now I'm hungry.

I had to write when I saw you're a Caol Ila fan. The 12 year is delicious, the 18 sublime (when and if you can find it), but during the chilly months there's almost always a bottle of that or Lagavulin in my house.

But besides a nice dram of scotch, for comfort food I always turn to a braise - either Lamb Shanks or Short Ribs, with roasted herbed potatoes. Good stew-y sorta food works too - Chili, Beef Stew, Curries etc, but those I'll have with an ice cold beer.

It was a similar weekend for me. My wife and I took a two hour drive and ended up having coffee and cake with strangers on their farm - very nice folks. On the way home we stopped to see my best friend who is a professional craft brewer. It was a beautiful sunny day so what was intended as a short visit turned into an afternoon of beers on the patio. His wife came home and cooked us a great dinner.
Sunday was rainy, so we stayed home and made osso bucco (with beef instead of veal). My wife was also recently diagnosed with Celiac, so I have been learning to make things without gluten. The accompaniment to the osso bucco was a lemony risotto - perfect to offset the richness of the sauce. It was a great weekend to contemplate the comforts of food, friends, and rain. The clattering of deer hooves in the night sounds like appropriate punctuation for your story.
Also, I got a little gift in the mail, so thanks!

when i need to be comforted i like to make either soup or pasta alla puttanesca. there is something really therapeutic about standing in one place and chopping chopping chopping vegetables, slicing garlic super thin, stirring, and getting it all together. generally i'd rather cook for myself or eat out, not have someone else cook for me if i'm in a funk. i have a hard time letting people cook for me, i want to help!

I can attest to Carol's lead foot; not as scary as it sounds, though. (kidding!)

I'm not much of a cook, I'm usually spent when I get home and the thought of cooking a full meal usually makes me want to cry. Although, there are times when I need some double breaded boneless pork chops, mashed potatoes made with sour cream, and roasted asparagus.

Oh, and Jonathan's peanut butter and strawberry jelly sandwiches. He makes 'em better than I do.

I've been meaning to check out Hoof+Fin, as all the reviews have been incredibly mouthwatering.

As far as comfort food, I'm in both camps as well. After an out-of-control day, there's something amazingly comforting about doing something for yourself that fixes any little part of the madness.

But at the same time, I fully believe that food = love. A simple cup of tea can be as good as a hug.

The very first photo did it for me. That and the gray, fourth-day-of-rain-in-a-row,-will-the-builders-be-out-of-here-in-time,-too-much-to-do-before-we-open-the-B&B angst. Except that the lovely chunk of meat I crave is a caribou filet that's stashed in my freezer. There's still chard in the garden. I know what I'm having in a couple of days. Excuse me while I go freezer dive...

...oh, and Carol? Thanks.

Carol,

This was a great post. I cried when I read Tea's post on Valentines Day and Saving Henry was too much. February has been craptastic, but these words from some pretty amazing women have helped.

I made a similar dish for comfort with less pinache than yours, but it does bring to mind some interesting debate on just how to deal with meat. I wanted a similar hunk'o'meat experience with Delmonicos on Saturday after a rainy day at Farmers' Market. I thawed some steaks from an older steer with some heavier lines of fat in the middle, in a tepid bath of water (still in their wrappers). Dried them really well and seared them on my Jenn-air griddle (high heat, no oil). I salted them with Eatwell Farm's lavender salt and let them sit for 10 minutes. I found some old cognac, put 1/2 cup of it with 1/2 cup water in a baking dish. I plopped the steaks in the dish and into a 350 degree oven for 10 minutes each side. I should have made a delicious gravy with the contents of the pan, but I have an awkward relationship with gravy-- Italians just don't do gravy as well as Anglo-Americans. So I served the steaks with baby swiss chard wilted and sauteed with olive oil garlic paste, and sweet potatoes baked in their skins for an hour with lots of Blue Ridge Dairy butter. Since I had to work again at market the next day, I stuck to green tea.

So now I want to try your salt aging, sear with no moisture technique. I will use the lavender salt.

Thanks and I like the slippers.

---------------> Nancy: I had some of "your" steaks last week, and they were amazing. Need to stock up again soon. Love the lavender salt and cognac idea.

When I'm in need of serious comfort food for whatever reason, the no-fail go-to is hash browns. Luckily, my partner makes the world's best hash browns (this has yet to be confirmed by independent research, but I'm sure it's just a funding issues since they are CLEARLY the best). It's not so much how they taste (though they are delicious) but the luxury of being able to sit on my butt and yell into the kitchen every five minutes, "are they done yet?" and then have a steaming mound of crisp potato and onion brought out to me. Maybe part of the comfort is the reassurance that no matter how irritating I am, he still loves me enough to cook?

Thank you so much for this post. Somehow, reading about how you cooked to relieve your stress has made me feel worlds better about my stressful schedule!

As for what I do when I need to be cared for: I braise something. Usually shortribs, but anything with bones will do. The smell of wine and stock and aromatics simmering oh-so-gently is the most effective aromatherapy in the world. It's the kind of cooking that I can do in my sleep, and yet results in the most incredible, rich and comforting flavors.

And if it happens to be raining and grey outside? So much the better.

This post is why the blog is so dang addictive. You write beautifully and concretely the things that float in other's heads.

When I do comfort I work back from the wine. Take a bottle that I've been holding on to and match it. Pinot to lamb, or lighter italian to eggplant parm.

I like your slippers (and your blogs) and I've been looking for a great pair for my cousin. It's so much harder than one would think, finding a good pair of slippers. Where are yours from?

--------------> Zappos.com -- I think they're from a company called Acorn.

Whenever I feel that I need to put some calm into a stressful week I crave either some type of braised meat with potatoes or polenta to soak up the gravy or almost anything with kimchi. The kimchi takes me back to my mom's kitchen which was an enormous source of comfort growing up. I'll open a nice bottle of red or after dinner pour myself a glass of a nice single malt.

After dinner I like to watch a movie. Preferably with either Daniel Craig or Hugh Jackman, naked at some point.

--------------> Daniel Craig. Yes. :)

watching this and was reminded of you, Bill Buford learning to cook at citronelle http://bbc.co.uk/i/rh93g/

i'll put a warning in for the soft shell crab preperation :P

I make soup when I need comfort. I could prep vegetables until the end of time, some kind of zen thing for me. And soup = many prepped veggies = me really happy and comforted.

forgot to add that my comfort food is chicken broth with tiny pasta stars or prosciutto crudo tortellini.

or if i need something more substantial spagetti alla vongole.

I am hoping to buy a house in takoma park in the next 1-2 years. I'd love to keep living here, it's just so delightfully weird at times. Like how the bison vendor at the farmer's market wears that Grand Poohbah Buffalo lodge hat. Just plain awesome.

It is the very act of cooking and feeding others that gives me the most comfort. It is the entire process, beginning with plotting the meal in my mind initially all the way to how I am going to serve it, that calms and focuses me and makes me feel warm. A little chicken pot pie doesn't hurt, either!

Wonderful post, every phrase, every word.

As far as what I do when I want to be comforted - definitely spaghetti with olive oil, a little garlic, and a ton of parmiggiano on top. Maybe because my Mom used to make that often when I was growing up. Maybe because it goes together quickly, but it is still so satisfying.

Take care of yourself...

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