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The Recorder - Saving the world with comfort food

In the months following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, I went through a career crisis.

With the world experiencing so much grief and anxiety, I asked myself, what on earth was I doing writing about food: making up recipes, blathering on and on about my delights and failures in the kitchen? Shouldn’t I be saving the world instead?

Then I attended the Fancy Food Show in New York. This giant exposition shows off popular and emerging specialty foods in the United States and abroad, from salsas to cheeses to chocolates.

I nibbled my way through thousands of booths at the Jacob Javits Convention Center and soon identified a trend. In an effort to counteract the prevalent cultural malaise, most of the food purveyors that year were displaying wares that embodied tradition and comfort.

They reminded me that food can nourish our spirits as well as our bodies.

I came to a realization, one that still guides my work. I may not be saving the world literally in my kitchen. In difficult times, however, reaching out to other people with nourishing foods and stories reminds me and others that the world is worth saving.

Now that Americans are practicing a regime of social distancing, I am grateful for my well stocked pantry and the opportunity it gives me to share food with my neighbors. Even if we can’t get together to eat, I can deliver carefully prepared dishes.

And we have plenty of time to talk on the telephone, about food and also about other things that matter: family, love, books, music, films, television programs, and the increasing daylight that reminds us that the earth keeps moving through its cycle of growth and renewal.

The COVID-19 crisis has provided some challenges to local householders, but most of these are solvable.

Are you unable to find bread at the grocery store? Bake your own. It will taste better than anything you can buy — is there anything more delicious and homey than freshly baked bread with butter? — and kneading the dough will help you work out your frustration at being homebound.

(Last Wednesday’s food column in this paper shared Andy Castillo’s bread recipe, which I plan to make myself this week.)

Are you discouraged by the lack of hand sanitizer at the drug store? Search online for a reputable recipe to make your own, like this one from Healthline, which is based on guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: healthline.com/health/how-to-make-hand-sanitizer.

Are you out of some of your favorite staple ingredients? Use what you have on hand. If you find pumpkin puree in your pantry, make pumpkin bread or pumpkin soup. If you have beans, soak them and transform them into a soup or stew or a mixture of the two, something one of my neighbors calls a “stoop.”

Are you worried about the larger community? If you have a little money to spare, donate to a food bank. My local group, Good Neighbors, distributed food to patrons in their cars for the first time last week, and the Neighbors are planning additional distributions soon to help families with homebound children.

We may not be making a lot of money these days, thanks to COVID-19, but we can still make simple, inexpensive dishes and nourish our families, neighbors and community with them.

Food can comfort us both physically and emotionally. I imagine I’m not the only person who has felt a bit overwhelmed by the cascade of events in the last couple of weeks as the closing down of public life has accelerated.

Preparing something that cooks for hours and hours and takes shape little by little, like the bean recipe below, can slow down our lives and our heart rates.

I hope to see many of you soon. Meanwhile, stay well, take care of each other and cook your hearts out.

Red Beans and Rice

This recipe is adapted from one I was given by my graduate-school pal, Mike Mashon, who is now the head of the moving image section of the Library of Congress. Mike hails from Louisiana. In his hometown of Baton Rouge a pot of red beans on the stove promises nutrition and good times for a crowd.

If you want to make this dish vegetarian, skip the ham hocks and sausage and add a little canned chipotle in adobo to your beans. The smoky flavor of the chipotles will mimic that of sausage.

Mike tends to make his red beans in a big Dutch oven. I used my slow cooker since it makes everything easier! If you want to use a Dutch oven, you will probably have to cook your beans for less time. But you’ll have to monitor them more closely.

1 pound dried red beans (the classic red bean is rounder than a kidney bean, but I am currently using kidney beans because that’s what I have in the house)

1 10- to 14-ounce can of tomatoes with green chiles (or just tomatoes; in that case, add some bell pepper to the vegetables below)

4 cups chicken or vegetable stock

1 cup water (plus more if needed to cover the beans)

1 ham hock (optional)

1 onion, chopped

2 stalks celery, chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

extra-virgin olive oil as needed to sweat the vegetables

salt to taste (start with 1 teaspoon)

1 pound spicy sausage such as andouille (use regular kielbasa if you can’t find andouille, and add more spice later), cut into small slices and quickly sautéed to release its flavors; Mike’s mother likes to use half sausage and half cubed ham.

Creole seasoning, red pepper flakes, or hot sauce to taste

Thoroughly wash the beans. Soak them for at least 8 hours in at least 4 cups of salted water. Drain them.

Place the beans, the stock, and the water in a slow cooker. Add the tomatoes and the ham hock.

Quickly sauté the onion, the celery, and the garlic in a little olive oil until they are translucent. Add them and the salt to the bean mixture. Cover and cook on high for 3 hours.

At the end of the 3 hours, add the sautéed sausage and seasoning. If you’re not sure how spicy you want your beans to be, be sparing here and add a little more kick after the cooking finishes. Continue cooking on high heat until the beans are soft.

The exact cooking time will depend on your slow cooker and the age of your beans. The first time I made this dish, in my old, All-Clad slow cooker, getting the beans soft took 3 to 5 hours. Most recently, in my new Crock Pot, it took overnight.

If you get discouraged waiting for your beans, pop them in a Dutch oven and simmer them on the stove. In that case, you’ll have to stir them from time to time, but they will soften more quickly.

Adjust the seasoning to taste, and serve over rice with cornbread. This dish is even better the next day. Serves at least 8.

Yankee Cornbread

3/4 cup flour

1/2 cup yellow cornmeal

2 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon baking powder

1 teaspoon Creole seasoning (or 1/2 teaspoon salt)

1 cup milk

1 egg, beaten

2 tablespoon melted butter or bacon fat

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Generously grease a 9-inch cast-iron skillet (or an 8-inch square baking dish) with butter or bacon fat.

In a bowl combine the flour, the cornmeal, the sugar, the baking powder, and the seasoning. Mix together the remaining ingredients and blend them into the dry mixture. Spoon the batter into the prepared pan, and bake for about 20 minutes, until the top is golden brown. Cut into wedges or slices. Serves 6 to 8.

Tinky Weisblat is the award-winning author of “The Pudding Hollow Cookbook,” “Pulling Taffy,” and “Love, Laughter, and Rhubarb.” Visit her website, www.TinkyCooks.com.

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