Some Comfort Food for Those Dastardly, No-Good, Very Bad Days (or Months)

Have you ever had one of those stretches in life where you just can't seem to catch a break, or your breath? When everything is going wrong all at once? We're coming off a month like that at our house -- in fact, we're feeling a little bit like a country song these days. My husband and I can't seem to be in the same city at the same time, literally passing one another in the night as we fly off on separate trips; I had the Death Flu, during which I had to write a 2,000-word article while high on DayQuil; our beautiful old puppy dog (who we knew wasn't long for this world) has finally bid us adieu. Oh, and we are in the middle of moving, which is always a relaxing and rewarding experience.

Needless to say, food -- and eating in general -- have not been a priority. It's not the healthiest, but we've been alternating between day drinking on empty bellies and gorging ourselves on our favorite comfort foods. In the spirit of giving (it makes everyone feel better!), I want to share a few dishes with you that I turn to for comfort.

Cheese and Peas

"Cheese and Peas" is another favorite comfort food recipe, one we found in The Smitten Kitchen cookbook, with which I remain obsessed. Of course, that's our name for it; cookbook author Deb Perelman calls the dish her grown-up take on Alfredo: shells instead of fettuccini, a simple cream-and-Parmesan sauce (flavored with lemon zest, which is just perfection) and green peas. Simple, satisfying and as delicious a pasta dish as I've ever had.

I couldn't wait to share this recipe -- a dish we eat at least once a week -- but my husband has been enthusiastically packing up our entire apartment in anticipation of the upcoming move, so I had to turn to the Internet to find it. Thanks, Adventures With the Always Hungry! The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook says this recipe yields four small, or two generous, portions -- I've been known to eat one and a half generous portions in one sitting.


• 1/2 pound pasta shells (small or medium, semolina or wheat, whatever you like) • 1 cup fresh or frozen peas • 1 cup heavy cream (you can use low-fat milk, but the lower the fat the harder it is to get the sauce to come together) • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter • 1 teaspoon fresh lemon zest (or more; I use at least a tablespoon) • 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese • Salt & pepper • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Cook the pasta according to the package directions, and when it is almost done add the peas to cook, about 30 seconds. Reserve about a half-cup of the pasta water, and then drain pasta and peas; leave to drain in the sink.

Wipe out the pasta pot and then add the heavy cream or milk; bring to a simmer, stirring frequently, until it reduces by half. Add the butter, and stir it until it has melted. Next, season the reduction with black pepper, a generous pinch of salt and the lemon zest. Add three-quarters of the grated Parmesan, stirring constantly until the sauce is smooth, and then add the drained pasta and peas. Cook the pasta in the sauce for as long as two minutes, until the sauce has slightly thickened; use the reserved pasta water, if needed, one spoonful at a time, to loosen the sauce if it's too thick. Garnish with the rest of the cheese, and a good sprinkle of flat-leaf parsley. Die, go directly to heaven.

Hot Dogs and Potatoes

This is one of my staple childhood comfort foods, and the stuff of family legend. My father is the oldest of five kids, and as he has told the story to me (many, many times), "Hot dogs and potatoes were the only thing your grandfather knew how to cook. Back then, women stayed in the hospital longer so your grandmother would be gone for several days. Grandpa would make this for us every night, every time Grandma went to the hospital to have a baby." By the time my dad's youngest sibling was born, he was about to graduate high school and had mastered the recipe himself.

I've seen my dad make this a thousand times, and when I was back home in New York this past month I asked him to make it for me again. He does it differently each time -- sometimes he cooks it in the oven (it's healthier, and easier for a big crowd), but the stovetop version is the best. According to my dad, his father kept it simple: "Grandpa would fry potatoes and hot dogs in the skillet, and throw in a couple of eggs at the end and scramble 'em in. That's it. We ate that all day, every day, until your Gram got home."

These days my dad throws in peppers and onions, which I think make the dish perfect. If you're going the stovetop route, just fry everything up -- starting with potatoes, then peppers and onions, then cut-up hot dogs -- and serve. If you want to health it up, bake the potatoes, peppers, and onions at 375 degrees, stirring occasionally, until they start to brown, and then toss in the cut-up hot dogs and cook the whole mess until it's browned.

You will feel better after eating this, I promise.

Greens and Beans

Cheese and Peas, Greens and Beans ... I do kind of like it when my comfort foods have rhyming names. This isn't the first time I've recommended greens and beans as the ultimate comfort food, and it is another dish passed down to me from my father. (My mother and brother are not fans.)

Greens and beans taste like Sundays at my grandmother's house; like my favorite fall festival, St. Anthony's, held every year in my hometown; like late-night college study sessions, when we were cooking on a budget. You can make them with any greens you like, but I prefer the traditional escarole, which is slightly bitter when raw but milder and more buttery when cooked down in olive oil, with garlic, red pepper flakes, and chicken stock. (Vegetarian? Use veggie stock.) Adding a can of creamy cannellini beans at the end; mashing them lightly with the back of a spoon gives the broth more body -- something for you to scoop at with slice after slice of Italian bread.

Am I romanticizing this soup? Maybe a little, but it's as close to home as a Texas transplant can get, and a welcome respite from the month of October -- which has been determined to kick my ass. Five weeks and five batches of greens and beans later, things are starting to look up.

(On a side note: Anyone want to help us move some furniture? Free beer and all the hot dogs and potatoes you can eat.)

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