Cooking for comfort means knowing how to eat, drink & be mellow


Barbara Ballinger and Margaret Crane

Baby, it’s cold outside and we’re busy working, wrapping gifts, writing holiday notes and cooking to avoid heading out as temperatures dip and snow flurries swirl. But what we cook and how has changed as we’ve aged.

In today’s world, especially during the pandemic lockdown, we seemed to take some of our energy out in the kitchen. Peeling and husking. Shucking and kneading. Twisting and braiding. Pureeing and sautéing. We became masters of the whisk, air fryer, food processor and more.

We had the time to spare. Cooking became a passion rather than something hastily tacked on to the list of things to do each day, especially when there wasn’t much to do but work and watch the depressing news.

Home-cooked food provided tangible evidence of human contact, feelings and comfort during those dark days. We traded recipes and joined online groups to see what others mastered. We even cooked together virtually.

Pre-pandemic (remember those days?), some of us loved cooking for ourselves, family and friends. We did it to the nines when entertaining. During the week, cooking could be a chore. But when we entertained, that was something special.

We started decades ago when first married and when Julia Child, Maida Heatter and Martha Stewart became household names. We became cooking machines: We laboriously peeled and sautéed baby onions for Julia’s boeuf bourguignonne or carefully simmered chocolate squares and separated eggs for Maida’s Queen Mother’s cake–a staple at some of our Passover dinners. Or we stuffed tiny cherry tomatoes or pea pods with herbed cheese because Martha said we must do this for our perfect party appetizers.

We still may fondly remember how fabulous that chocolate cake from Scott Peacock and Edna Lewis’ Southern Cooking cookbook was, but it was more the smile on one guest’s face when she saw the candles twinkling on its velvety chocolate top for her birthday. Phew! Somewhere along the way–probably after our 500th dinner and the pandemic, we lost our way and lost interest. We were tired. Add that to our advanced ages and less steady hands, feet and eyesight–and the pandemic.

We’ve proved we can turn out an entire dinner that could be Instagram worthy. But do we need to continue to do so? NO!

We’ve also come to realize that when entertaining, the food is actually secondary. Easy entertaining is now on the menu. Being together, talking, laughing, sharing is the most important ingredient. Good liquor/wine/beer and good company are what make for a great and relaxing evening. Barbara recently attended a wonderful hors d’oeuvres and dessert party at a friend’s home who entertain graciously and easily. Nobody missed a main course or seated dinner. Margaret has been entertained this way for years.

So, when we still need something to eat at home or to entertain with home-cooked fare, we knew we needed a plan. Family members still descend since we’ve remained the hub. We usually host events, and friends who come to visit from far away and sometimes nearby.
We need something to serve them and not send them to bed or home hungry. Furthermore, many of us don’t find take-out satisfactory, and it often doesn’t taste as good by the time it’s brought home. And it’s expensive. Eating in a restaurant is even more costly and less intimate than dining at home.

We’ve gradually mastered the best way to handle such meals without dreading the events as some still do. Our goal has been to make good enough meals, so we don’t have to take to our beds in exhaustion after everyone’s gone. In our many years of cooking, we have learned some tricks to make entertaining guests less labor intensive.

Here’s our well tested recipe for easier entertaining. Find simpler meals. So many cookbooks and food blogs now post recipes with just a few ingredients such as all those one pot and sheet plan dinners–chicken with broccoli or salmon and potatoes and a few herbs or shrimp sautéed in a wok with lots of fresh vegetables and some Chinese spices, oils and a sprinkling of nuts (if no allergy). Before Thanksgiving, Barbara even listened to a Bon Appetit magazine podcast about making Thanksgiving easy with a sheet-pan turkey cut apart.

We both now lean toward cooks such as Melissa Clark who writes for the New York Times, and recipes from Ina Garten and Deb Perelman’s blogs or in their cookbooks. Ina’s tomato soup works and freezes well. So does Barbara’s beau’s mushroom barley soup or Margaret’s world-class chicken matzoh ball soup. We tend to gravitate toward recipes that can be made ahead and kept in the refrigerator or freezer.

If a recipe requires lots of chopping, such as a shrimp dish with tomatoes and feta, which one of Barbara’s non-cooking friends made not too long ago, we do as much as we can ahead of time. She chopped in the morning and set small dishes with ingredients in the refrigerator, so at mealtime all she had to do was fry and assemble.

Big salads can be colorful and also fall into the chop and assemble mode. Salads win extra kudos because most of us are watching our carb intake and it’s a cool meal during a very hot summer. We love our homemade chicken salad with grapes, dill and pecans or bread salad from the River Café cookbook.

On the same Bon Appetit podcast, Barbara learned the importance of having greens that vary, at least one should have some crunch. We also try to think seasonal. In summer we might do a gazpacho-watermelon rather than all tomato for fun; in winter Margaret’s chicken or pea soup or a squash acorn/apple as we neared the Thanksgiving holiday. In winter, we may bring forth our recipe for black bean soup or a minestrone.

Then, come spring it will be back to cucumber dill soup, another Margaret soup that’s great and can be frozen. Same goes for the main courses and desserts. And if you don’t have energy, there’s nothing wrong with a trio of different ice creams and some pretty cookies, made or bought.

Ask about food allergies and preferences when you invite over friends. We remember back when nobody shared allergies or that they couldn’t eat this or that in advance. Now there’s little we don’t know about everyone’s diet. We’ve been bombarded of late at the table with this person’s lactose intolerance and that person’s peanut allergy and yes, several people’s soy or wheat allergy. We’ve learned to ask in advance. We also say, “Don’t be shy if you don’t care for chicken or fish and don’t eat red meat.”

Our feelings won’t be hurt. We prefer to have our guests eat rather than push the food around on their plate or hide it under their baked potato. Oh, that’s right, they never eat anything white. So sorry, and here’s to sweet potatoes and brown rice.

Make a detailed shopping list. After you decide on your courses for all meals, list the ingredients needed that you don’t have on hand. Head to the grocery store or stores preferably once or at most twice. That’s one of the most maddening parts of entertaining. Having to shop for this and that and coming home with five or six grocery bags and unpacking all, then realizing you forgot the cornmeal, fresh mushrooms or whatever. Back you go. You love your grocery store but how much?

And don’t think that everything has to be homemade. Most grocery stores have good bakeries for bread and pies or cakes. It’s okay to fill in or do an entire meal this way. Some have also upped their game on soups and prepared foods. Try some out before you have company, so you know what you’ll love.

We have a friend in St. Louis who is a terrific cook but often serves Stouffer’s creamed spinach, which she knows how to doctor up for company. And she loves to share that she didn’t make it. She seems to make everything else and entertains with ease.

Make a timeline. Know what you will do each day–perhaps, even a week ahead. You can make a brisket or lasagna and freeze all. Then note when you need to defrost each dish and how–in the refrigerator or on the counter. Don’t have too many foods to make each day if company is staying for a week or a few nights.

Barbara recently advised a friend to prepare a noodle kugel for a Jewish holiday the morning of the dinner, but not bake it until shortly before it was to be served. And if you don’t want to spend time setting a table and loading and unloading the dishwasher don’t. For the hors d’oeuvres party Barbara and beau attended, the hosts used fancy paper plates. Nobody was offended. How could they be with the spread!

Other advice:
–Keep a food/entertainment diary.
–Figure out over time what works and doesn’t. Barbara and Margaret have found a few cooks and writers whose recipes they like and trust and some they do not and now avoid.
–It’s quite acceptable to make a new dish and have it flop or be so-so.

When Margaret was visiting Barbara to work together in person, Barbara made a chocolate dessert the New York Times reported had been its most popular decades ago. It was a chocolate mousse torte from a favorite cookbook author and chef. Maybe, it still appeals to many, but both women, along with the beau, thought it was awful and laughed uproariously. Heave-ho into the trash can it went. Yes, that was too bad since chocolate is expensive, but it wasn’t worth eating. And good laughs–more than good desserts–are hard to come by these days.

For the busy last-minute chef and hostess, making something easy brings real comfort of the most important kind: Culinary.

Here are two recipes each of us loves and can be prepared in advance. And the New York Times (August 11, 2022) had a piece titled, “Freezer Meals and Recipes to Cook for New (and Tired Parents)”

Caesar Salad Dressing & Croutons
Make dressing ahead of time.
½ cup olive oil
1 clove garlic (crush in the olive oil and let stand in covered jar for at least ½ hour)
1 can anchovies, drained
1 coddled egg
1/4th tsp salt
1/4th tsp dry mustard
½ tsp pepper
1 ½ tsp Worcestershire sauce
2 T lemon juice

Add to the oil mixture, lemon juice, salt, dry mustard, pepper, Worcestershire sauce, anchovies and coddled egg. Shake well and refrigerate.

You will take this out before guests arrive to get it to room temperature.

To assemble when guests arrive
Parmesan cheese grated
Croutons-freshly made (see below)
1 large head of Romaine lettuce
Break lettuce. Rub salad bowl with garlic, sprinkle lettuce with parmesan cheese, add croutons, add dressing right before serving, serve.
Note: For more of a meal, add cooked shrimp or grilled chicken, which you can prepare ahead.

Croutons can be made ahead of time (or you can buy them). Cut the crust off either white or French bread that’s slightly stale. Brush bread with garlic olive oil (one garlic clove crushed in olive oil that you let stand for at least ½ hour). Cut the bread into 3/4th- inch cubes. Put on cookie sheet and into the oven at 325 degrees for about five to 10 minutes but watch the croutons and remove when browned.

Ina Garten’s Tomato Soup, courtesy of the Food Network Magazine
50 min Prep: 10 min Cook: 40 min Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Grilled cheese croutons (see ingredients below):
3 tablespoons good olive oil;
3 cups yellow onions, chopped (2 onions);
1 tablespoon minced garlic (3 cloves);
4 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade;
1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes, preferably San Marzano; Large pinch saffron threads;
1 tablespoon each, Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper;
1/2 cup orzo;
1/2 cup heavy cream

In a large pot or Dutch oven such as Le Creuset, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions and cook over medium-low heat for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until golden brown. Add the garlic and cook for 1 more minute.

Stir in the chicken stock, tomatoes, saffron, 1 tablespoon salt and 1 teaspoon pepper. Bring the soup to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, fill a medium pot with water, add 2 teaspoons salt and bring to a boil. Add the orzo and cook for 7 minutes. (It will finish cooking in the soup.) Drain the orzo and add it to the soup. Stir in the cream, return the soup to a simmer and cook for 10 more minutes, stirring frequently.
Serve hot with grilled cheese croutons scattered on top.

Grilled Cheese Croutons
4 (1/2-inch-thick) slices country white bread
2 tablespoons unsalted butter;
Melted 4 ounces Gruyere cheese, grated

To make the grilled cheese croutons, heat a panini grill. Place the four slices of bread on a cutting board and brush lightly with the melted butter, being sure to butter the corners. Turn the slices over and pile Gruyere on two of the slices. Place the remaining two slices of bread on top of the Gruyere, buttered sides up. Grill the sandwiches on the panini grill for about 5 minutes, until nicely browned. Place on a cutting board, allow to rest and then cool and cut into 1-inch cubes.

Note: You can freeze the soup and make the croutons the day you are serving it.