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Comfort food: Holiday recipes as art and identity 

When life gives you lemons, make lemon potatoes

A few weeks ago, my family and I were in a bad car accident. Driving down Ga. 400 at about 60 miles per hour, my back right tire blew and my brakes failed. After a few terrifying seconds fishtailing back and forth, all my weight on a useless brake pedal, the car spun around and hit the concrete divider. The airbags deployed, and the car filled with smoke. None of us was hurt, save a nasty bruise for me from the seat belt, but we were badly shaken.

After the police, the insurance and the ride home, we tried to regroup. What to do? How to convince our befuddled souls, which in those seconds had prepared for eternity, that we were still firmly grounded in this world?

We roasted a chicken.

I also made ratatouille, from a recipe printed in this paper a few years ago by our former columnist Kim O’Donnel. I always think of Kim when I make that particular dish. And now it was a dish that comforted us on this weird night that felt like borrowed time.

Preparing the food got me thinking about the ways in which a person, sometimes a stranger, sometimes a friend, can work her way into the fabric of a family or life though the simple act of providing a recipe. In my family at least, the things we cook make us who we are. And so a recipe contributes, makes someone a part of our lives in a way few other things can.

What else from the outside world contributes to my family's identity? Books and music. Art. If we think of art as creative endeavors that reach into our lives and create feeling and identity, how could anyone argue that food is not art?

As someone who eats out for a living, recipes have paradoxically become all the more important to me, and the holidays more precious. Thanksgiving and Christmas are practically the only days of the year I’m guaranteed a thoughtfully prepared home-cooked meal, and I've become rabidly attached to the recipes and dishes my family traditionally serves on those days.

In my early 20s, when my husband (then boyfriend) and I lived in New York City, we had our first Thanksgiving away from our families. We had the holiday typical of folks at that point in life, the giddy, we-can-do-whatever-we-like drunken hodgepodge Thanksgiving, where we invited all our friends who weren't going home. Both of us worked in restaurants, he in a three-star French restaurant where they served foie gras torchon in perfect circles on the plate. To achieve that perfect circle, the torchon was cut with a ring mold, the outer, non-perfectly symmetrical edge thrown out as garbage.

A few weeks before Thanksgiving, he started bringing home the scraps — we hoarded them in the refrigerator. On the day itself, I took all the scraps and mixed them into my sourdough stuffing recipe. The result was totally outrageous — a turkey filled with foie, and then basted with liquefied foie as it cooked and melted. The gravy that resulted from the pan drippings also became infused with buttery foie flavor.

Today, I wouldn't hear of such a thing.

During the holidays, I become that staunch traditionalist, the one who balks at any deviance from the way we’ve always done things. It's a tension in almost every family — the one cook who wants to experiment, deep fry the turkey this year, try Tofurkey, bake a newfangled pie recipe they got from some cookbook other than the usual. And then there's me, the stick in the mud. No pine nut tart for me. Take your sage plum maple dessert and shove it. I want — I need — the basics. Turkey, stuffing, creamed spinach, potatoes with lemon and onion, gravy, pumpkin pie, apple pie. When I invite people over for the holidays and they ask if they can bring anything, I say, "No, really, don't. No, REALLY. I won't eat it if you do. Bring wine."

These recipes make me who I am. I need to know there's a touchstone, a constant every year. Something I can come back to. Something I can count on.

I offer a few of my family holiday recipes, understanding that the possibility is there for a recipe to infiltrate someone's life and offer comfort in a way that no restaurant review ever could. And if you want to throw a bunch of foie scraps in the stuffing, you can do that, too — just don't bring it to my house. I won't eat it. Bring wine.

Besha’s Stuffing

One large loaf sourdough bread, preferably stale or ripped into chunks and left to dry out

One stick unsalted butter

One large onion, chopped

Three stalks celery, chopped

2 cups chicken stock, homemade or canned

Handful parsley, chopped

Around 10 fresh sage leaves, chopped

Salt to taste

If you have a fresh loaf of bread and haven’t had time to leave it to dry out, you can rip it into bite-sized chunks and put it in the oven on a sheet pan for 30 minutes at 350 degrees. It doesn’t get all the moisture out, but it’s better than trying to work with fresh, moist bread.

In a large fry pan, melt the butter over low heat. Add chopped onion and celery, and cook until the onion is translucent.

In a large bowl, mix bread chunks with butter and cooked veggies. Add parsley and sage. Moisten the mixture with chicken stock, just enough so that it holds together but not so it’s soggy. Add salt to taste.

If you’re not actually stuffing your bird with the stuffing (I do, but I guess it’s supposed to kill you or something), cook in a casserole in the oven at 350 degrees for 45 minutes.

 

Lemony oniony potatoes (adapted from the Frugal Gourmet)

12 medium red potatoes cut into quarters

1 large onion, chopped

Juice of 2 lemons

Zest of 1 lemon

Large handful parsley, chopped

2 tablespoons sifted flour

3 tablespoons olive oil

Salt & pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 350. Parboil the potatoes for 3 minutes in salted boiling water and drain. In a large mixing bowl, combine potatoes, onion, parsley, lemon zest, flour, olive oil and salt & pepper. Mix thoroughly. Transfer to a baking dish and bake for 30 minutes or until potatoes are browned and crispy. Remove from oven and pour lemon juice over hot potatoes. Serve immediately.


Creamed spinach

(Note: This recipe is pure foodie blasphemy, because I use frozen spinach. It’s the dish I grew up with and so that’s how I make it. Fresh spinach can be used in its place, but the cooking time is reduced significantly.)

3 packages 10 oz. whole-leaf frozen spinach, thawed.

1 large onion, chopped

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 teaspoons fresh grated nutmeg

Juice of 1 large lemon

White sauce (see below)

Salt & pepper to taste

White sauce

3 tablespoons butter

3 tablespoons flour

2 cups milk

1 teaspoon salt

Melt butter in saucepan over medium heat. When it’s melted, stir in flour till it’s smooth. Continue stirring as the flour cooks, until it’s a light golden color, about 5 minutes. Increase heat a little and slowly whisk in milk until it’s thickened. Once thickened, reduce heat and stir in salt. Taste your sauce – if it still tastes gritty from the flour, cook longer.

In large saucepan, heat olive oil and sauté onion until it turns translucent. Stir in spinach and add lemon juice. Add white sauce, nutmeg and salt & pepper and simmer over low heat 15-20 minutes. Taste for salt before serving.
 

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