Prior to last week, I only liked baked potatoes two ways and the first was so weird, I usually had the decency to keep it to myself. Many years ago, I had an internship a couple blocks from a lunch place with a baked potato sub-menu, full of odd and awesome topping combinations. My favorite involved a marinated tomato-pepper salad, avocado, cheese and — yesss — ranch dressing and it was amazing and wonderful and stop looking at me like that because I have missed and longed for it since. The second way I like baked potatoes is equally troublesome, the classic with “the works” involving heaps of cheese, butter, sour cream, bacon, chives and blood pressure medication. I no longer eat them the first way because the sandwich shop is 250 miles from here and also it has since closed; I usually resist eating them the second way because if I’m going to have all of the fat and calories of a golden, glistening and salted pile of French fries, I’d rather have them in said French fry format.
Does anyone ever need an excuse to eat pie? Nobody we should be friends with, is my mantra. But, in an effort at inclusivity, here is a handy dandy excuse-finder, should you need a little convincing:
- Because it is not Friday yet.
- Because you probably woke up before you wanted to, and went to a job that even if you love, is still by definition something you wouldn’t do for free. Pie is an excellent consolation prize.
- Because yesterday felt like spring and everyone’s 3-month bad mood instantly evaporated. Today you needed a hat and gloves again. And a slice of pie, warmed just enough that a scoop of vanilla ice cream trickles over it.
- Because you’re probably never going to win that Maine Inn in time for lobster and blueberries season with an essay. (Although we are all rooting for you. And blueberry pie.)
- Because if you’re in the Northeast, fresh fruit pies are still months off, which means you get to make pies with chocolate and gooey caramel instead.
I’m pretty sure I’m the last person in the cooking-obsessed world to get Sean Brock Fever, the chef behind McCrady’s, Husk, and Minero in Charleston. Worse, this is probably a good time to admit that I was sent his first cookbook, Heritage, when it came out and rejected it on sight alone. There was something about those sleeve tattoos cupping the sacred rainbow beans, an image I’ve seen variations on countless other farm-to-table cookbook covers and magazine spreads, that put me off. Skimming the recipes didn’t always help. Your red peas, cornmeal and gold rice should be from Anson Mills, and if not, at least the cornmeal should be fresh from a gristmill. Your tomatoes should be home-canned, or at the very least, San Marzano. Your pork should be from a heritage pig, your buttermilk and goat cheese should come from a local farm, as should your Red Bliss potatoes; this is your heritage after all.
I realize that if you’re scouring the internet this week looking for something romantic to cook for that little Hallmark holiday this weekend, the words “pot roast” probably didn’t cross your search threshold. It’s not sexy food; nobody is writing aphrodisiac cookbooks about bottom rounds and boneless chucks. But if you ask me, it’s something better, something cozy, warm, and classic, which neither steals the show nor keeps you from enjoying it. It’s for people who long ago stopped aspiring to entertain in multi-course and completely exhausting meals (for host and guest) and turned instead to comfort foods that surprise and delight on sleety winter nights. Sure, those individual gratins, galettes, microgreens and shooters of soup look elegant, but none of them have ever gotten the reaction that a massive batch of spaghetti and meatballs, from-scratch lasagne or great big short rib braise with a green salad did. No dessert, frosted, layered or crimped has ever had the delighted reception of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies (dough prepared days before, shh), still on their baking sheet. Why are we pretending we have a team of line cooks at our disposal, anyway?
Over the last couple years — a dark time in which I’ve slowly had to accept that my once-tiny baby with fairly simple needs now required real square meals at very specific times of the day, such as dinner, far earlier than we ever do and that he’d likely be looking to me (me!) to provide them or face the hangry consequences — I’ve attempted to increase my repertoire of two things: 1. Dinners that can be made easily in under an hour that I actually want to eat, and 2. Casseroles. No, no, I don’t mean the canned cream of soupiness things. I mean, the idea of taking disparate meal parts and baking them in a big dish until they’re much more than the sum of their ingredients. Plus, they’re dinnertime magic: they reheat well; they make excellent leftovers for as long as you can stretch them; and they rarely require anything more on the side than a green salad (for grownups) or steamed broccoli (for people who haven’t yet come around to salad). Long Live The Casserole Rethought With Minimally Processed Ingredients! is hardly a sexy catchphrase, but there you have it: my new battle cry.
I blame Katz’s for this. Two months ago, when we spent a day out playing tourist — i.e. breakfast bagels, Madeleine at the New York Historical Society followed by The Dinosaur Museum of Natural History (what my son calls it, please never correct him) — we decided to finish off our shivering afternoon with a visit to Katz’s Deli, a place I hadn’t been to in probably 10 years despite living fewer than 15 blocks from it, and the kid, never, shame on us. Alex ordered the chicken noodle soup and this hot mess arrived and it was peculiarly perfect: overloaded with noodles, colossal chunks of carrot and chicken and I… was jealous. My homemade chicken noodle soup never looked like this.
As far as Christmas songs go, Fairytale of New York is pretty bleak. Instead of chestnuts on the open fire, horses come in 18 to 1; instead of white Christmases, morphine drips; instead of coming home for the holidays, one waits them out in drunk tanks. It’s not the stuff of greeting cards. And yet, for a whole lot of people, myself included, it wouldn’t be December without The Pogues 1987 holiday anti-ballad on repeat. It comes in handy when you’re feeling a little grinchy* about the season; there’s something of a relief in a song where nobody does anything right but aren’t pretending things are any other way. The sentiments are honest, and in a way, a little magical, choirs and bells and bands in the street, imagining better times and better years ahead.