Comfort food still on front burner

Author Marian Burros says the fare is 'anything that makes us feel safe, warm, and protected'

Growing up, Marian Burros so enjoyed the spaghetti and meat sauce her mother cooked every Wednesday night, she'd wake up the next morning and eat the cold leftovers for breakfast.

Decades later, few dishes can bring Ms. Burros as much comfort as that spaghetti sauce. "No matter what I put in the ragu, it always reminds me of Wednesday nights," Burros writes in her latest cookbook.

Sure, tomato and meat sauce sounds comforting. So does meatloaf or macaroni and cheese. How about tostados, cold sesame noodles, or polenta?

In "Cooking for Comfort" (Simon & Schuster, 210 pp., $24), Burros, a food writer for The New York Times, draws upon recipes from the kitchens of friends and relatives, proving that the definition of comfort food lies in the stomach of the ingester.

"Comfort foods are anything that makes us feel safe, warm, and protected," Burros said over breakfast in Boston. "They relieve stress. They make us relax."

Burros says most people's notion of comfort food developed in their childhood home. So it makes perfect sense that she draws comfort from the weekly tomato sauce her Jewish mother learned to cook by watching Italian immigrants stir it over a charcoal flame at a neighborhood park.

Of course, there was the more traditional fare of Russian Jews - roast chicken, brisket, and matzo balls. And when she established her own kitchen, Burros wanted to branch out and master the complexities of French cuisine.

In recent years, she has moved toward simplicity. Many American cooks - herself included - have grown more confident about their abilities and more appreciative of fresh ingredients than fancy preparation. And American eaters, she says, became fed up with dinners so complicated that ordering the main course had become an intellectual exercise.

Then came Sept. 11, and a new longing for the familiar, Burros says. A month after the terrorist attacks, she quoted a friend who watched with satisfaction as "rail-thin women scarfed down potpies" while watching a football game.

Much to her surprise, the article spawned a flood of reader response as well as a cookbook contract. But she worried that the trend might fizzle out by the time her book was published. She hadn't banked on the US going to war just as it hit stores - an event that kept comfort food on the front burner.

Though they are living farther apart now, Burros's family still seeks comfort in one another's food. Her son, Michael, who cooked his first crepes and apricot sauce at age 10, owns a vegetarian restaurant in Spain. And in the book's last chapter, well past Burros's tomato sauce or the chilled beet and cucumber soup, is the rich chocolate brownie with orange rind that Michael bakes both in Spain and with his niece in the US.

Macaroni and Cheese

1 cup diced onion
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups low-fat milk
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
10 ounces extra-sharp aged white Cheddar, grated, plus 2 ounces, grated
Salt and freshly ground white pepper to taste
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon hot pepper sauce
8 ounces corkscrew-shaped pasta (Burros suggests cavatappi )
2 tablespoons grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

In a large saucepan, cook the onion in the butter over low heat until it is soft but not browned, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in the flour. Remove from the heat and whisk in the milk until thoroughly blended. Return to medium heat and cook, stirring, until the mixture begins to thicken. Remove from the heat and stir in the mustard, the 10 ounces of Cheddar, salt, pepper, nutmeg, and hot pepper sauce.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta according to package directions until just al dente. Drain but do not rinse. Stir immediately into the prepared cheese sauce until well blended. Adjust the seasonings. Spoon the mixture into a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Top with the remaining 2 ounces of Cheddar and the Parmigiano-Reggiano. Place the rack in the bottom third of an oven that has been preheated to 400 degrees F. Bake for about 30 minutes, until the mixture is hot, bubbling throughout, and golden.

Makes 3 to 4 servings as a main dish or 6 servings as a side dish.

Meatloaf

1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 large onion, finely chopped
3/4 pound ground beef
3/4 pound ground veal
3/4 pound ground pork
3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
2 lightly beaten eggs
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1/4 cup ketchup, plus 5 tablespoons for glazing
3 tablespoons saltine cracker crumbs
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 strips bacon, optional

Set a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

In a frying pan, melt the butter; sauté the onion in the butter over medium heat until it is soft and golden. Add sautéed onion to the meats along with the Worcestershire, eggs, mustard, 1/4 cup ketchup, cracker crumbs, and salt and pepper. Gently mix the ingredients until well blended.

Spoon the mixture into a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan and pat gently. Spread the remaining ketchup over the top and lay the bacon slices over the loaf, if desired.

Bake for 50 to 60 minutes. Remove from the oven and drain off the fat. Allow the loaf to sit for 5 minutes before slicing and serving.

Yields 8 slices.

- Adapted from 'Cooking for Comfort'

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