Creature Comforts

There’s no accounting for what provides comfort. Some things are nearly universal, such as spending time with the people you love, or burrowing deep under a heavy blanket when it’s cold out. Food has always factored in for me, of course, but some surprising things came to the fore at the height of the pandemic. Shut off from the world, distraction was the best way to cope, and that meant losing myself in the world of anime and donghua. There’s no such thing as a mild obsession, which describes my sudden and complete immersion in these words just as well.

In one of my favorites, Mo Dao Zu Shi (魔道祖师), there’s a passing mention of lotus root soup. Only once does it actually grace the screen, but that was enough to capture my imagination. To better inhabit this world, to more fully experience the drama, I needed to make this soup.

As a time-honored Chinese preparation, lotus root soup itself has been a source of comfort for centuries. Simple and spare, with a clean, clear broth that sings with ginger, dried jujubes infuse a touch of sweetness to balance out the flavors with grace. The lotus root becomes tender yet remains crisp even after cooking for an hour. The flavor of this tuber is quite mild, which makes the alluring texture its greatest asset to the stew. Traditionally pork is use to add richness and protein, but in my version, wheat gluten is a natural substitute.

On that note, being the complete geek that I am, I’d like to think that my recipe is something that Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji would be able to share. Though Wei Wuxian always preferred meat and spicy foods, lotus root soup was a favorite of his, and Lan Wangji always forbade the killing of animals within his sect’s territory. Secretly, I wonder if he was a vegetarian at heart.

Even if you’re not familiar with the story, this is definitely an effortless source of edible comfort that everyone can enjoy.

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Don’t Mess with Texas Chili

After 31 years on this earth, I have come to find that all my life, my entire idea of what chili should be is entirely wrong. Not flawed, not slightly askew, like a garbled translation leaning too heavily on artificial intelligence, but terminally, entirely wrong.

True Texans would laugh my chili straight out of the saloon. Defined primarily by what it omits, Texas-style chili would NEVER employ beans of any sort, NO vegetables (what is this, a salad?!) which excludes tomatoes as well. Not even a dab of tomato paste would make the cut.

Rather, this is a celebration of meat. Seasoned with the entire contents of a reasonably stocked spice rack, chilies in many forms are what tint this stew a fiery red. The ferocious, flavorful burn is not for the meek.

I’m not about to mess with Texas, but in this modern era, “meat” is no longer synonymous with beef. That’s why I’m thrilled to dive right into this time-honored tradition with a plant-based version that’s every bit as hearty, bold, and amazingly hot.

No cowboy in their right mind would ever turn down such a feast. Keeping things simple allows for greater flexibility in garnishes, whether you want to dress it up or down, or eat it plain. Pick and mix to your own tastes, but some of my favorite toppings include:

When it comes to creating a sound foundation, there’s no end to your options there, too. No need to keep in in a bowl when you could ladle it over:

Hungry yet? I sure hope so, because chili is best made in big batches. This one makes enough for a small family, but is prime material for freezer fodder, since I’m only a single lady myself. Portion out single servings in secure zip top bags and store flat in the freezer until ready to eat. All you need to do is drop it into a saucepan, add a splash of water, and cook over medium-low heat for an instant homemade meal.

Even if you’re an ardent vegetable lover like me, make some room on your dinner table for an exceptionally, unapologetically meaty entree every now and then. This one will satisfy any savory cravings.

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Run Down Runaround

Walking into Philip Gelb‘s underground restaurant, you never know quite what to expect for dinner, no matter how carefully you study the menu in advance. It’s been many months now since I had the luxury of that fully immersive, in-person experience, but there are some moments indelibly imprinted in my memory.

It was a taste unlike any other I had encountered before, being shamefully uneducated on the entire Caribbean culinary canon in general. Leading with heady aromatics, simultaneously fiery hot yet creamy and soothing, it’s both familiar and entirely foreign. Tender vegetables enveloped in a voluptuous broth, almost thick enough to qualify as custard, smoldered quietly in deep earthen bowls. Dissecting the fundamental building blocks, the spices didn’t appear particularly exotic, nothing terribly esoteric; the combination of seemingly discordant elements, mixed with a generous pinch of technique, is where the true magic happens.

Run down stew is a staple of Jamaican cuisine, typically made with seafood, but no two cooks make it quite the same way. Coconut milk is the only constant, utterly irreplaceable component. Long simmered over low heat, the rich broth reduces to concentrate the flavor, thicken to a velvety consistency, and take on a subtly toasted, nutty aroma. Flavor like that doesn’t come out of a can; time and patience are really the most important ingredients here.

The genesis of the name is a bit murky, some attributing it to the way it’s cooked down and some of the more delicate vegetables fall apart. Personally, I’d like to believe that it comes from the ability to revive anyone who’s feeling a bit run down themselves. Forget about watery chicken soup; this stuff can truly soothe the soul.

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Water You Waiting For?

Dramatically heaving the bag out of the kitchen with exaggerated effort, punctuating every few steps with a few groans for good measure, my dad could have won awards for that performance. “What did you put in here! Are you throwing away a pile of bricks?”

Heavy with the remains of a recently eviscerated watermelon, our garbage bin was easily overweight. Summertime trash days came with a built-in upper body workout. Though I knew he was only putting on a show, that sentiment remained along with an unintended, yet indelible sense of guilt. There was no municipal composting in my hometown nor enough knowledge on my part to make my own mulch at the tender age of 16. All I knew was that I loved watermelon, and that passion came with a lot of excess baggage in the form of rinds.

I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was throwing away perfectly good food, despite conventional wisdom that says otherwise. Turns out, I’m not the first to have that thought. Thrifty homemakers have been turning those scraps into pickles for centuries, particularly in the south, with a penchant for a syrupy sweet brine. One or two batches of these preserves was enough for me, but the refuse continued to amass.

Further experimentation led to greater rewards. Once cleaned of the hard outer skin and diced, the watermelon rind itself becomes almost translucent while cooking, taking on a neutral flavor much like that of simmered zucchini or any other summer squash. Perfect for bulking up a stew when the budget is lean or adding a bit more fiber that picky eaters can easily enjoy, my secret ingredient for everything savory from June to September is formerly fodder for the wastebasket.

Even now, with effortless curbside compost pickup, this “rubbish” is too good to toss. Further trials have turned out delicious results, including a delightfully crisp, crunchy watermelon rind slaw and deeply satisfying, piping-hot breaded watermelon rind fries. An easy entry into the world of watermelon rind cookery is curry, for anyone who remains skeptical. The bold spices paint any vegetable in a rich palate of warm flavors, ideal for mixing and matching any produce you might have left into the bin. Curry is my go-to answer for using up odds and ends that otherwise don’t go together, but with a bit more deliberate planning, you can craft a truly superlative stew.

Serve over rice or with chewy flatbread like naan or roti to complete the meal. You could also lean more heavily on the southern roots of these produce picks and dip a wedge of soft, sweet cornbread into the brew. No matter what, just don’t toss those rinds. They still have a lot of culinary potential left to savor.

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Legume Love Affair

Stocked up on dry beans recently? Judging by the empty shelves anointed with “sold out” and “temporary shortage” placards replacing usual price tags, you’re certainly not alone. Always one step behind the trend, pickings were already slim by the time I got motivated to hit the grocery store. A few bedraggled sacks of dusty pinto beans looked the most promising, which isn’t saying much.

Nothing against the little legume, but it doesn’t inspire the same way that, say, chickpeas do. They’re not quick-cooking like lentils. They’re not sexy like fresh fava beans. They’re not my first choice, but by no fault of the bean itself. It’s a personal failing that I couldn’t see beyond their ruddy pink skins to embrace the creamy elegance within. Every bean is worthy of greatness, especially in such lean times, so it was still a prize to snatch up at that late hour.

Rather than taking the typical Texan approach, I cast an eye out to farther afield to Georgia for inspiration. No, not The Peach State, but the eastern republic nestled at the intersection of Europe and Asia. There, lobio (ლობიო), is an indispensable staple, marking the place at every dinner table throughout the year. A thick, rich stew made with pureed kidney beans, finely ground walnut paste, and the tangy smack of tart cherry juice, sour green plums, or unsweetened pomegranate juice gives it a distinctive (and addictive) taste. It’s worth pointing out that the word “lobio” only means “beans,” allowing ample room for variations on the theme. There are a number of varieties of this dish already in the wild, so one based on pinto beans is hardly a stretch.

Some prefer to keep their beans entirely whole, while other cooks roughly mash the tender legumes, and still more chose to puree the mixture to silken sufficiency.

Tkemali, a sharp, fruity sauce made from sour plums is the traditional topper most highly recommended here, but a drizzle of thick, syrupy pomegranate molasses, or even a bold balsamic reduction can provide a similarly satisfying contrast, cutting through the concentrated bean bonanza.

You can serve lobio as an easy one-pot entree, or a side with grilled kebabs, baked tofu, or some other simple meatless protein. Either way, don’t let a lack of any one bean stop you from firing up the stove; all legumes, big and small, are welcome here.

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Holidays Delayed

Feeling festive, or just faking it? If you fall into the latter camp, you’re not alone. I’ve been keeping a seat warm for you by the fire here, just waiting for until the holidays blow over. As much as I adore the merriment, the traditions, the seasonal treats, it’s hard to remain so jolly when it’s Christmas approximately six months of the year.

Beyond the standard Christmas creep, publishing deadlines mean I need to think about pecan pies and pinwheel cookies in June, at least. I’ve already had at least two Thanksgiving dinners before fireworks go out for the 4th of July. When it’s finally December, at long last, the best I can do is plaster on an ugly sweater and retreat for burgers after everyone else gets their second plates of glazed ham roast and gravy.

I love the holidays. I relish those early photo shoots and brainstorming sessions, garnishing my apartment with tinsel remnants after putting away all the other props. I just need a little palate cleanser, okay?

Before we dive head-first into the all-singing, all-dancing days of holly jolly revelry, let’s just take a breather. Clear the table of all the wrappings and bows, set aside menus for feast soon to come. Schedules are packed with events, work still needs some cursory attention, but I promise, there will be time. Right now, let’s just sit down to a bowl of soup, shall we?

It’s the kind of soup that hits the spot anytime, which makes it just so perfect for this moment. Hearty but not heavy, savory and soothing, it can lift the spirit for scrooges and saints alike. Tender, toothsome black lentils pop like caviar amidst a brothy base of simmered vegetables, tinted red with tomato and smoky paprika.

Whole almonds make an unexpected cameo, slightly softened from the heat, still bearing a resounding crunch at the core. It’s an unconventional addition I first (and only) encountered during my stint baking for a cafe, where the soup of the day was largely open to creative interpretation. I don’t know who first whipped up this idea, or if maybe it was an accident in the first place, but I happen to love the surprising combination of textures and tastes.

Don’t let the holiday season bully you into forced gaiety. One thing I’ve learned from years of crushing FOMO and endless deadlines is that if you take a moment to hit the reset button, start in on something completely different, and allow your mind to wander where it desires, ultimately, you’ll come back to the intended path stronger. Happier. Merrier. And in this case, with a full, and fully contented stomach.

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