This is getting monotonous, not to mention scary. I have thought a lot lately about my grandmother, my mother’s mom who died in the last great pandemic that swept the world, the 1918 flu epidemic. She was assisting the overcrowded and overwhelmed Grand Rapids hospital with the care of my 5-year old mother and her 3-year old little sister, both of whom were badly burned in the Hinckley forest fire. One day when my grandfather called the hospital to check on the girls, he was told “Your daughters are fine but your wife died last night.” With burns covering 80% of their little bodies, it was incredible that my mother and aunt did not succumb to the flu as well. Mom recalled two memories about food from that experience — how she enjoyed cornflakes for the first time in her life and how she marveled at Jell-O. One food was crispy and one was “wiggly.” Remembering her badly scarred arms and legs gives me pause. Her story of that horrific time came out in bits and pieces over many years. Yet, she lived her whole life with an unshakeable positivity — a characteristic that many people today still remember about her.
I think that what we all need now is comfort food — simple, cozy, familiar foods that taste like a hug. The worst thing to do is sit back and mindlessly munch on just anything we can get our hands on. When I was growing up, I learned from Mom to make nutritious meals from just a few ingredients. She always advocated healthy eating with whole grains, simple high protein meals, and not so much sugar. I remember when, in her later years, if mom experienced an unsatisfying restaurant meal or ate a highly processed food, she would say in astonishment “I ate the whole thing looking for the flavor!” On the farm, mom made easy to prepare, delicious, familiar foods. Comfort foods.
Chicken Noodle Soup
When most people think of comfort food, I think one of the first things that comes to mind is chicken noodle soup. It is so simple to make that you don’t even need a recipe. One night, we’ll have a rotisserie chicken. For the next night, I’ll put the carcass from the leftover chicken into a large pot, cover it with a quart of chicken broth or water, and bring it to a simmer. Cook for 20 minutes and skim away the foam as necessary. Then remove all the bones, skin and cartilage from the broth using two forks or tongs. Chop and add an onion, a couple carrots, and a couple celery stalks. Heat to a boil and add a bay leaf. Cook until the vegetables are tender and then throw in a half cup of rice, orzo, or a box of broken spaghetti or other pasta. Cook another 10 or 12 minutes until the rice or pasta is al dente.
Whole Grain Bowl
I’ve always loved the comforting taste of whole grains. Earlier this year, I picked up a mix called “Ancient Grain Blend” for some project I was working on. It was a blend of red rice, barley, rye berries, black barley, oats, jasmine rice, and white quinoa. I found a packet of it in the back of my cupboard last week and made a main dish with it. You could add any leftover cooked meat, fish or chicken you have on hand and make this Whole Grain Bowl. My mother would have loved this!
This makes a delicious meal when paired with quickly sauteed shrimp with garlic butter. Makes 6 to 8 servings.
2 cups mixed whole grains (red rice, pearl barley, rye berries, back barley, whole oats,
jasmine rice, quinoa)
2 teaspoons salt
8 cups water
8 ounces cherry tomatoes, halved
11 ounce package frozen whole kernel corn
1 cup canned black beans, rinsed and drained
1 cup shredded Mexican style four cheese blend
Optional leftover shredded meat or fish
1 bunch cilantro, chopped
Combine the grains, salt and water in a large saucepan. Place over high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low. Cover and simmer for one hour or until the grains are tender. Drain any excess liquid. Stir in the tomatoes, corn, and black beans. Mix in the cheese and meat. Sprinkle with chopped cilantro and serve immediately.
Quickly Sauteed Shrimp with Garlic Butter
I like to keep a bag of frozen shrimp or a mixture of frozen seafood on hand for a quick meal. I often find them on sale in supermarkets. Makes 4 to 6 servings.
1 package (16 ounces) frozen shrimp or mixed frozen seafood
3 cloves garlic, minced
Salt, pepper, and fresh lemon juice to taste
Rinse frozen shrimp in cold water and pat dry. In a saute pan, heat the butter with the garlic until melted. Toss in shrimp and stir-fry over high heat until the shrimp turn pink, about two or three minutes. Season with salt, pepper, and lemon juice. Spoon over servings of the Whole Grain Bowl.
Maitopottua (Milk Potatoes)
This was my father’s favorite comfort food, made of not much more than potatoes and milk. The name “maitopottua” is an amalgamation of Finnish and Swedish. Serves one person per potato.
Peel one potato per person you plan to serve. Cut up the potatoes and put into a pot. Add water to cover and a bit of salt. Heat to simmering, watching so that the potatoes don’t cook dry. When you can easily poke a fork into them, add milk to cover. Then add salt and pepper and butter if you have some. Simmer until the milk cooks down a bit, about five minutes. If available, I like to add a little dill weed or other green herbs. Enjoy with rye bread.
Beatrice Ojakangas is an award-winning food writer and the author of 31 cookbooks.