Food became a lot more important during the pandemic — not just for nutrition, but also for comfort and communing. Plus, we didn’t go out as much, so our latent chefs emerged by necessity. I don’t know about y’all, but I did a lot more cooking this year — grilling, braising, sautéing, roasting, composing, repurposing — and the kitchen became more of a refuge than it’s been in the past. In the first half of the year, I took so much pleasure cooking for Kit. In the second half of the year, food became great therapy and a great comfort.
One of the big themes in the Yarrow kitchen in 2020 was flavor. Maybe to break up the monotony! We used a lot of chili crisp, seasoned salts, gochujang sauce, jalapeños — fresh, pickled and candied — lots of cilantro, Asian sauces like Hoisin and Szechuan, hot honey, garlic, sweet onions, anchovies, anything caramelized. And MSG made a revival in our kitchen. Turns out CRS (Chinese Restaurant Syndrome) is pretty much an urban myth, which you can read about here. MSG is a good salt substitute because of its lower sodium content and the glutamate imparts that deep flavor of umami that everyone loves.
Cooking in 2020 became not a means to an end, but the means itself. I enjoyed tag-teaming in the kitchen with cousins Don and Pam, cooking for sister-in-law Dee Dee when she was here on an extended stay of love and compassion, matching music with food, or rustling up half-a-dozen apps and hosting a long cocktail hour for six people. As Moliere said, “One should live to eat, not eat to live.”
We tried a lot of different dishes this year, but here are the ones we kept coming back to, which is as good a definition of comfort as anything.
The Martini. Is there a better aperitif than a martini? It stimulates the appetite as well as the mind (just one though — two is too many and three not enough). We made ours with high-quality gin, just a drop of St. Germain elderflower liqueur, moderately shaken and strained into a chilled glass with a lemon twist.
Roasties. I’m part Irish, so naturally potatoes are comfort food. We made them a dozen different ways, but this is one of the best. They come out super crisp on the outside, soft as a pillow inside. Toss them with some Kosher salt and voila! Here’s the recipe.
Hot Skillet Chicken. Americans choose white meat over dark by a 2-to-1 margin, and that’s a shame. Thighs have all the flavor. For this dish, use 4 to 6 skinned, boned thighs. Season with pepper and MSG and then dust with flour. In a frying pan, preferably cast iron, fry ‘em hard (medium-high) in canola oil, or duck fat if you can find it. Put a good crust on them, a few minutes on each side. If you like a little heat, add a fresh jalapeño (seeded and thinly sliced) to the pan and cook them for a few minutes with the chicken. Take the thighs out of the pan and take the pan off the heat. Quickly add to the pan 4T of honey and 2T of apple cider vinegar and stir. Arrange a couple of thighs on a mound of field greens or other hearty lettuce and drizzle the pan sauce over all.
Chicken Piccata. When we lived in San Francisco, chicken or sole piccata was one of my go-to dishes at Original Joe’s in North Beach. Simple, crusty and piquant. Here’s one of my favorite recipes.
Salmon Cakes. This is a two-fer — a good way to stretch a big piece of salmon over a couple of nights. Get a big slab of salmon filet with the skin on. The first night make a dressing of olive oil, lemon juice, lemon zest, a little bit of honey or agave, oregano and S&P. Put the salmon on a baking pan, drizzle half of the dressing over it and cook in a 325-degree oven about 15 to 20 minutes (don’t overcook). Fix a green salad with the other half of the dressing and serve the salmon over it. The next night, take your leftover salmon (you can do this while you listen to the Jamgrass band Leftover Salmon) and use this recipe for the best salmon cakes you’ve ever had.
Lemon Shrimp Pasta. Simple, delicious, healthy — the holy trinity. Serve it on any kind of pasta you’d like, but I prefer linguini. And I like to finish it with a little dried red pepper flakes and chopped cilantro. Here’s Giada De Laurentiis’s recipe.
Roman Steak. We lost many beautiful, brilliant people this year. Anyone reading this on my website knows of the most beautiful and brilliant person we lost. Another was Julia Reed, a daughter of the South and raconteur of the first order, who passed from cancer. Here’s a short memory of her in the Times: “Deeply imprinted by the Mississippi Delta traditions she grew up with, Ms. Reed was as well known for her entertaining as her journalism. In one of her many food columns for The New York Times Magazine, she described a New Year’s Eve party that had gone off the rails. There was a fistfight, more than one bathroom dalliance, the unmasking of an arms dealer, a fainting, a fire and more — all of which she missed but heard about secondhand by phone when she awoke with a hangover the next day.”
One of Julia’s favorite recipes was Roman Steak. It’s easy and delicious (maybe not so healthy, but you’ve earned it!). Get a couple of good ribeye steaks. Mash together a couple of peeled garlic cloves, a tablespoon of fresh chopped rosemary, and then add a 1/2 cup of olive oil and S&P. Marinate the steaks in that for a couple of hours and then grill to your preference. Outstanding with sautéed green beans and roasties (see above).
White Chicken Chili. Sometimes we want it good and fast (without going to Chick-Fil-A). So use any recipe you want for white chicken chili (there’s a hundred of ‘em; here’s one) but buy a rotisserie chicken from Costco and pluck all the meat off it. Half the fun of this dish is how you garnish it.
Taco Bar. Easy and fun, like a warm evening in Puerto Vallarta. Start with soft flour tacos, preferably street size so you can have more of them (as Yogi Berra said about pizza, “You better cut the pizza in four pieces because I’m not hungry enough to eat six”). Put out a few different fillings: ground beef cooked with taco seasoning, fried fish (good quality frozen fish sticks work in a pinch), chicken meat simmered in tomatillo sauce, or carnitas. Add-ons can go on and on: Mexican relish (chopped cilantro and onion), sliced radishes, salsas, hot sauces, pickled carrots and jalapeños, guacamole or sliced avocados, but please no beans or lettuce, otherwise you’re straying into burrito territory. If you want to go fusion style, you can use Sriracha or gochujang sauce instead of traditional salsa. An occasional shot of tequila — as showcased by the Berardi clan below — smooths everything out.
Mary’s Cookies. For the last course, something sweet. Neighbor Mary Howard made these and we included them because we were part of the focus group during their development. These are what cookies in heaven must taste like. The recipe is a secret.
Happy New Year and bon appetit!