Richmond Times-Dispatch

COMBAT THE CHILL

Nourished by comfort foods made with staples, love and even a bit of nostalgia, we can soldier on during winter

- Holly Prestidge hprestidge@TimesDispa­tch.com

Two weeks ago, we were practicall­y begging January to hurry up and get here because we couldn’t wait for 2020 to be over. Two weeks into this new year, the champagne has long since gone flat, the celebratio­ns — whatever they looked like — are over and life has resumed minus the sparkle of twinkling lights.

January arrived right on time with a chilly gust of frigid air that would send us running for our comfy pants and warm sweaters if we weren’t already wearing them every single day.

Ahem.

But January also means we trade in cookie sheets for casserole dishes, and punch bowls for soup pots, because hearty, nourishing comfort foods are among the best things about bleak winters. Unlike the fussy meals we agonized over during the holidays, January comfort food often begins and ends with staples, finessed just enough to bring out the best flavors.

They’re made with love — and, sometimes, a dash of nostalgia.

Case in point: my family’s stuffed cabbage. My paternal great-grandmothe­r was Hungarian, and one of the recipes she passed on to my grandmothe­r was stuffed cabbage— perfectly rolled cabbage leaves stuffed with meat and rice, nestled in a distinctiv­e tomato sauce that, to my 10-year-old unsophisti­cated palate, was downright delicious.

I hadn’t had that stuffed cabbage in years — probably decades— until last summer when I couldn’t figure out what to get my dad for his birthday. Suddenly, like a whiff of boiled cabbage, it hit me: I’d make him that stuffed cabbage, something he also hadn’t had in years. I asked my grandmothe­r to mail the recipe to me, and I received four pages of notes that outlined in precise detail how to make the cabbage as my great-grandmothe­r had done it.

It was a long note for a relatively simple recipe that used humble ingredient­s: ground meats, an onion, tomato sauce and paste, and a few other things.

Oh, and that distinctiv­e sauce I remembered as a kid? Nothing but plain tomato sauce, vinegar and a surprise ingredient: sauerkraut.

Making the stuffed cabbage is a bit time-consuming because there are multiple steps, but it’s not difficult — and it’s worth every bite. It’s exactly

the sort of thing that hits the spot on freezing January days. It also makes a lot, which means you can feed a family for not muchmoney and probably still have leftovers.

Oh, and those fat cabbage rolls are perfectly suited for holding birthday candles, too. Just sayin’.

Moving on, I can’t mention casseroles without offering a good one that I recently discovered. It makes short work of leftover chicken, cooked white rice and frozen vegetables.

This chicken and rice bake is nothing more than those three things, combined with a cheesy sauce and topped with buttery Ritz crackers.

It’s hot, bubbly, starchy, crunchy— really, do I have to say more?— and it checks off all the boxes for a hearty lunch or dinner. I actually found it while looking for ways to use up leftover turkey, but have since made it again with chicken. The cheese sauce is mild because I used colby jack and mild cheddar. You can use any frozen veggies you like, and substitute brown rice for white, if you prefer (even riced cauliflowe­r — I get it, resolution­s and all).

I also realized diced ham would work here, especially if you swapped the cheeses for Swiss and added some frozen peas and carrots. It’s a kitchen sink kind of meal that can be customized based on whatever you have on hand.

Just don’t skimp on those crackers. That crunchy lid is one of the best parts.

Lastly, lentils — as in thick lentil soup that’s simple yet packed with flavor and is hefty enough to satisfy as a meal.

The right combinatio­n of spices can sometimes elevate seemingly ordinary ingredient­s to much more. Cumin, coriander and cinnamon are the winning trio that adds all sorts of warmth and flavor to this winter soup. Diced carrots and red bell pepper simmer in vegetable broth along with the lentils.

Take note: You have to use red lentils here. Lentils come in several varieties, and red lentils (they’re actually more orange than red) are perfect for soups because they soften quickly while cooking, disintegra­ting into a glorious mush that’s perfect for a hearty soup. In fact, red lentils are often used as thickeners for soups and other dishes like curries because of how they fall apart.

(On the flip side, if you want lentils that keep their shape, go with green or brown varieties, which take longer to cook.)

You can puree the soup if you want it silkier, but I prefer the mushy, toothsome texture. I paired the soup with cheese crisps, little mounds of broiled cheese that take seconds to make but add that little something extra — because, why not?

Let 2021 be the year you serve your soup with a side of crispy cheese, and maybe cabbage rather than cake for your birthday.

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