Comfort Food For Challenging Times
My brother recently blogged about perfect biscuits, which I’ve been thinking about for several weeks. Autumn is definitely soup and hot biscuit time for me, but more than that, the combination reminds me of my mom, who spent her last months in my home. As she faded (fairly) gently into forgetfulness, she lost many of her lifelong pleasures. One pleasure that actually increased for her was an appreciation for good food. In her younger years, she was a bit of a food Calvinist, constantly worried about preserving her health and believing that utterly delicious food was “indulgent” and almost certainly indicated Total Depravity.
As she floated further down the river of forgetfulness, she began to forget her rigid restrictions about many things. This meant she allowed herself to eat pretty much whatever she wanted, which quite often, this turned out to mean microwave mac and cheese dinners (!). Once the filters of courtesy and cultural correctness wore off, she clearly preferred the orange stuff to my homemade Italian version, which I found pretty funny. I suspect that for her generation, such store-bought food seemed like a treat, whereas to me, it’s often a travesty. I have to wonder though; what might I prefer in my own dotage? (And is dotage sneaking up on me even now?)
Celebrating The Living And The Dead
Autumn has always been my favorite season, a time of change, of the soft Chinook blowing through morning fog, of colorful foliage and bright berries. Over the years, a series of losses has made the fall feel more melancholy and less adventuresome. My husband died on Halloween, coming on for seven years ago now. Mom died a few days after my November birthday, on the same day my dad had died 12 years earlier. Nearly a dozen other friends have made their journey in autumn as well. The enticing autumn wind still warms my heart but its call feels different now, as does the possible/probable future.
Last week I had a request for tall, curving branches needed for an art project. It turned out to be an annual Day Of The Dead display at the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art. Each year, a remarkable artist, Araceli Cruz, weaves magical displays combining memorabilia with leaves and flowers under arching branches. This year, Araceli will work with the Friday Tidy to create an outdoor version at the library, which we’ll decorate with garden gleanings, from empty bird nests and fallen foliage to seedpods and bundled twigs. I think this charming, loving tradition will become part of my own gardening style, combining as it does the natural and ephemeral, the spiritual and the down-to-earth in the deepest way.
Light And Crispy Biscuits
Indoors, it’s still time for soul-stirring soup and biscuits. After playing with several recipes, I’ve settled on this one, which uses less butter than many yet results in high-rise biscuits that are light and crisp on the outside and tender and almost creamy on the inside. That little bit of cream of tartar makes them rise so well; it’s a fast-acting leavening agent that works during the mixing/kneading stage, making for very light, crisp biscuits. Don’t let them sit around, though; for perfection, they need to be baked off as soon as you get them on the baking sheet, and eaten as soon as you get them off it! A quick blitz in the food processor mixes the butter fast, so it stays nice and cold, and fast, light handling keeps these biscuits tender and tall.
High Rise Biscuits
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1 cup unbleached white flour
3/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper (optional)
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, frozen, chopped
2/3 cup whole milk or half and half
Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Sift dry ingredients together, then put them in a food processor with the cold butter and blitz for a few seconds; mixture should be like coarse corn meal. Put in a bowl, add preferred liquid quickly and stir just until a soft ball forms. Knead gently for a few seconds, then pat into a square an inch thick (about 6 x 6 inches). Cut into 2-inch squares and put on a baking sheet, spaced well apart. Bake until golden brown (12-14 minutes) and serve at once. Makes about 9, serves at least one.
Mom’s Favorite Chicken Soup
When anyone is sick or when a little culinary comfort is indicated, this is my go-to recipe. The self-broth is made with the chicken skin and bones as well as the vegetable peelings and trimmings, giving this soup a hearty, satisfying broth that tastes light and fresh (I hate the heavy, stale taste of boxed broth). Lemon gives it extra zing but you can leave it out if you prefer the softer flavor of traditional broth. You don’t have to use any seeds, either, but varying them offers a simple twist that keeps this delicious soup enticing. I use corn in season for the sweetness and slight crunch, but again, optional!
Standby Chicken Soup
1 tablespoon avocado or olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon fennel, celery, or cumin seeds
1 organic lemon, juiced, rind grated
1 teaspoon stemmed thyme
1 cup chopped sweet peppers (a mix of colors is nice)
2 stalks celery, chopped
2 large carrots, peeled and chopped
2 Yukon Gold or any potatoes, peeled and chopped
1 pound organic chicken thighs (including skin and bones)
1/4 cup stemmed Italian parsley
1 ear of corn, kernels cut (optional)
freshly ground pepper
Make broth: In a medium saucepan, combine onion and garlic skins and trimmings with carrot and potato peelings and celery trimmings and chicken pieces. Add 6 cups water and 1/2 teaspoon sea salt, bring to a simmer over low heat and simmer, covered, for an hour. Strain into a bowl, return strained broth to pan and bring to a boil. Cook until reduced by about a third, tasting several times until it reaches your preferred flavor, keep hot over low heat. Chop boned, skinned chicken meat, set aside.
Make soup: In a soup pot, heat oil with onion, garlic, 1/4 tsp salt, celery or whatever seeds, lemon zest and thyme over medium high heat until fragrant (1-2 minutes). Add peppers, celery, carrots, and potatoes, cover pan and sweat vegetables for 10 minutes. Add chopped chicken and half the parsley, add water to cover and simmer until vegetables are barely tender. Add hot broth and corn if using and simmer over lowest heat for 10 minutes. Add lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste and serve, garnished with parsley. Serves 4-6.