A couple of weeks ago, with freezing temperatures in Maryland and along the East Coast, I asked my foodie pals, John Shields and Henry Hong, what they would cook to warm their homes and comfort winter-weary hearts.
John, to no surprise, drew from his roots and offered Colcannon, an Irish comfort food that involves potatoes and lots of butter. The recipe — along with another for Irish brown bread — can be found below. You can hear John, the proprietor of Gertrude’s restaurant in the Baltimore Museum of Art, talk about Colcannon’s simple preparation in the weekend edition (Episode 349) of the Roughly Speaking podcast.
But Henry, the Food Nerd, a man of insatiable culinary curiosity, surprised me with what appears to be a recipe from a 1960s magazine, something involving a can of cream of mushroom soup. His wife Sarah’s grandmother passed it down: Chicken Poppy Seed Casserole. Henry swears it’s a sure-to-comfort dish, and having known the man for some 10 years now, I’ve learned to trust his opinions.
Besides, some of America’s most comforting dishes were clipped from magazines and newspapers back in the day, and they’ve become heirlooms. Comfort foods are not merely yummy and filling; they are nostalgic dishes, bringing to mind favorite meals of childhood and often connecting us with our ethnic roots.
I offer for comfort a good pot of minestrone, and by now, I am a disciple of the Marcella Hazan way of preparing it. It’s widely regarded as the best.
Here are John’s and Henry’s recipes from the weekend episode of the Roughly Speaking podcast:
Grandma Glenna’s Chicken Poppy Seed Casserole,
Ingredients appear above, in the image with this post.
Set your oven to 350 degrees. Poach chicken with peppercorns and rosemary. Chop portobello mushrooms to bite size and saute with olive oil, salt and garlic. Throw in some fresh spinach to wilt at the end if you wish. Mix together equal parts sour cream (or greek yogurt) and cream of mushroom soup. Add mushrooms, ground black pepper and finely chopped rosemary sprigs. Reserve liquid and cut up chicken and add to mixture. Transfer to buttered casserole dish.
For topping, crush club crackers (or multigrain crackers) and add a couple tablespoons of poppy seeds. Add a few tablespoons melted butter and enough liquid from the poaching to make the topping crumbly. Spread on casserole. Spray a little cooking spray over the top to make it crunchy. Bake until bubbly, about 25 to 35 minutes.
Place the potatoes in a pot and cover with cold water. Add 1 teaspoon salt and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for about 30 to 40 minutes, or until the potatoes can be easily pierced with a knife. Drain in a colander and let cool slightly.
In a large skillet, or wide pot, melt 5 tablespoons of the butter and saute the leeks until soft, about 6 to 8 minutes. Add the cabbage or kale and cook for about five minutes, or until wilted.
Add 1 ¼ cups milk and simmer until the milk is hot. Add the potatoes and mash well with a potato masher. Add more milk as needed. Season with salt, pepper and a pinch of nutmeg (optional). Heat mixture well and serve in bowls. Top with softened butter and green onions. Serve at once.
Bonus: Johnny’s Brown Bread
I’ve spent quite a bit of time visiting Ireland and fell in love with their brown bread upon my first trip. This staple of the Irish kitchen is nothing like the sweet, raisin-filled Irish-American version I grew up eating. I’ve experimented for years with variations of recipes and this is the one I’ve come up with. As the bread flour sold in Ireland is much coarser than what is available here in the U.S., the texture is never exactly like the breads in Ireland. But this recipe produces a loaf very much like the ones I’ve enjoyed. Some people, like me, enjoy a little sweet in the bread and a touch of butter to enrich the loaf. However, the authentic brown bread has no sweetener or butter.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
3 cups stone-ground whole wheat flour
½ cup all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons oats
3 tablespoons bran
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons brown sugar (optional)
2 tablespoons chilled butter, cut into pieces (optional)
Sift together the flours, oats, bran, baking soda, salt and sugar (if using) into a mixing bowl. Using the tips of your fingers, or a pastry cutter, rub the butter into the flour. Make a well in the center of the flour and pour in the buttermilk all at once. Mix with a wooden spoon or by hand, just until all the liquid is incorporated. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured board and shape into a loaf. Place in a lightly greased 8-inch loaf pan and make a deep “X” cut across the top of the dough with a sharp knife. Bake for about 40 minutes. Remove from pan. When the loaf is tapped on the bottom it should sound hollow. Allow to cool on a baking rack before serving. This bread is great with butter and preserves.