Comforts of Home

A pair of comfort-food cookbooks to make surviving cabin fever season a little easier

It's All American Food: The Food We Really Eat, The Dishes We Will Always Love
David Rosengarten
Little Brown & Co.
$29.95.

Recipes From Home
David Page and Barbara Shinn
Artisan Sales
$30.

It's that time of year when the night seems to expand exponentially and the air insists on maintaining a mean-spirited chill. A time, I find, when cozy and comfortable take on a sort of über-importance, whether in the form of flannel sheets or insulated boots or comfort foods.

What's your favorite comfort food? Come on now, everyone has one. A special taste that envelops the psyche as it satiates the appetite. Pleasing, calming, warming, heartwarming--a food that makes everything (hateful boss, bad breakup, falling on your ass on winter's slick sidewalks) a little better for a little while.

I've heard lots of people talk about their comfort foods. Mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese (out of the box), spaghetti with tomato sauce, a sandwich of leftover turkey and stuffing. Some people crave the heartiness; others, the simplicity. Still others the memories of Mom.

Comfort food, often enough, is equated with "American" food. Meat and potatoes, robust stews, flaky fried chicken. For many of us, comfort food is inexorably linked to fond memories of a family meal or the merriment of preparing it in the kitchen. And so, of course, our comfort foods are likely to be predetermined by what we grew up with--dishes that offer the soothing sustenance of nostalgia. It's not much of a surprise then, that our favorite comfort foods can be a fascinating reflection of our heritage.

If you expand on this concept a bit, you'll find yourself in the terrain of David Rosengarten's new cookbook, It'sAll American Food: The Food We Really Eat, the Dishes We Will Always Love. The idea behind this book is that the great American melting pot is as much about cuisine as it is culture. "American" food is not just about mashed potatoes and roast beef, but appropriated versions of all sorts of ethnic wonders, from beef stroganoff to ravioli.

"The simple fact is you cannot serve 'authentic' foreign food in the United States," food critic Rosengarten writes in his introduction. "Any diaspora will produce hybrids, and America, having been on the receiving end of numerous populations from every possible part of the world for generations, has more hybrids than most."

Philosophically, the point is that the evolution of a cuisine is a natural process, and there's no need to sheepishly look down upon "Americanized" versions of foreign foods. Rather, we should simply accept what he calls "mongrel cooking" as American food, pure and simple.

Philosophy aside, It'sAll American Food is a delightful addition to any kitchen, if only for the sheer volume of wonderful recipes it holds. The book's 400-plus recipes are neatly broken into three sections: Ethnic America, Regional America, and Classic America. Ethnic America covers everything from Italian and Mexican fare to Korean and Moroccan selections. Regional America travels from New York to Dixie, the Midwest to Hawaii. And Classic America takes you all the way from breakfast to dessert. Within these pages you'll find recipes for cold borscht, Kung Pao chicken, Maryland crab cakes, chicken and sausage gumbo, deviled eggs, and tuna-noodle casserole. Imagine the peculiarly themed buffets that await.

Not only is this cookbook fairly easy to follow, but its interesting concept and plentiful variety seem to entice even unfamiliar chefs into the kitchen. So keep it in mind for the would-be culinary artists in your life.

And the dishes themselves? I tried a handful. They were all quite satisfying, though some more than others. First up were the cheese enchiladas. "Chicken and beef enchiladas are good, but nothing hits the comfort food spot like a cheese enchilada," Rosengarten writes by way of introduction to the recipe. He's right, of course. And, hot from the oven, these are profoundly comforting, bubbling over with gooey cheese. Actually, I'd warn that these are really, really cheesy. I used only about two-thirds the required cheese (the author even recommends a specific brand and style) and found it more than adequate.

Prep time on this recipe also took longer than expected. But happily, that gave me time to concoct the simple salsa verde (from two pages worth of salsa recipes), a tart and spicy dip for chips that kept my strength up until the enchiladas were ready.

Next I took a jaunt over to Italy for the spaghetti and meatballs in the "longer-cooked very garlicky marinara sauce." With three-quarters of a cup of garlic and three-quarters of a cup of olive oil, I had serious doubts about this during the preparation. But lo and behold, it turned out to be both airy and substantial, a spectacular complement to the meatballs (as an additional nod to the ethnic-American flair of this venture, I used buffalo for the meatballs--a lean and tasty alternative to beef).

And finally, I took a turn toward Regional America, the Midwest, and specifically, Cincinnati five-way chili. Now this requires a bit of explanation: My husband went to The Ohio State University, which accomplished two things: It solidified his adoration of college football, and it introduced him to Skyline Chili, a now-beloved staple he'll drive out of his way for whenever he finds himself back in Ohio. For the uninitiated, Skyline Chili is a Cincinnati-based chain of restaurants that serves a sweet, aromatic sauce of chili over spaghetti, or over hot dogs, usually smothered with cheese.

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