Comfort Food

This week I was filled with grief for a former co-worker who lost his only son. All week Jeeps and I have been upset, questioning the world and its tenuousness, reaffirming each other and the kids, trying to remember what is important. Redman, especially, got kissed and manhandled a lot this week.

In my sad distraction I found myself all too easily sliding back into not eating.  Seeking comfort as well as inspiration, I re-read Molly Wizenberg's A Homemade Life and she delivered on both fronts. Sobbing through the chapters of her beloved father's death, I arrived at the recipe for "Ed Fretwell Soup." This Italian vegetable creation was delivered to the Wizenbergs by Ed and Barbara Fretwell, during the time of Molly's father's long decline.

It was full of Swiss chard and carrots and plump beans, hearty and reassuring, one of the best soups I’d ever had. When the first batch was gone, we called to ask for more, and Ed delivered it on the next day.

It's one of the best soups I've had, too, and funny thing, because it seems like it's just another minestrone soup recipe. Yet it's not. I don't know what makes it different or so special. But I made it tonight and ate four bowls of it. And about eight oatmeal-chocolate-cherry cookies.

The recipe from Homemade Life involves dried beans and their preparation, which involves overnight soaking. I wanted to make this tonight, right now. I had no dried beans and I tend not to have good luck with them anyway. This involved rearranging the recipe, plus I added a few other tweaks. 

So for the original, click here to go to the January 2005 of Molly's blog Orangette. Scroll down to the post called "On industry, indolence, and Italian vegetable soup". Or, for crying out loud, buy yourself a copy of the book because it is well worth having.

Here is my sped-up tweaked version. The original recipe caveats this makes a lot of soup. If you don't have a large enough pot or enough people, Molly suggests halving the recipe. Which I did here.

Italian Vegetable Soup, based on half of Ed Fretwell Soup

  • 1/2 package of dried porcini mushrooms 
  • 3 large cloves garlic
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 stalks celery, sliced thin
  • 6 carrots, sliced
  • 1 medium zucchini, trimmed, quartered lengthwise and sliced
  • 2 turnips, diced (not in the original recipe but I'd bought a few because I've been wanting to try them anyway and this seemed a safe way)
  • 6 cups vegetable or chicken broth
  • 1/2 small bunch Swiss Chard, stalks discarded and leaves coarsely chopped
  • 1/4 head of cabbage, coarsely chopped (I didn't have cabbage so I used my entire bunch of Swiss chard, something else I've been wanting to try more of)
  • 1 28-oz can whole peeled tomatoes, drained and chopped (that's from the full recipe but I didn't have a 14-oz can so I just used the whole thing.)
  • 1/2 tsp dried sage leaves
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 can cannelini beans, 1 can red kidney beans, 1 can chick peas, all drained and rinsed together. You'll use 1 cup to 1 1/2 cups of the mix as you see fit.  Refrigerate the rest for a 3-bean salad.
  • Best-quality olive oil and parmesan cheese for serving.

About 1/2 hour before starting the soup, put the dried mushrooms in a small bowl with 1 1/2 cups of warm water. Let sit to reconstitute. Remove the mushrooms and chop. Strain the mushroom water through a fine sieve or coffee filter and reserve. (I can't stress the straining enough. You don't want grit in your soup.)

In a large soup pot, warm the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions, celery, carrots, garlic, and turnips. Saute for 10-15 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the zucchini and broth, increase the heat to medium-high and bring to a simmer. Add the Swiss chard, tomatoes, sage, and reserved mushroom liquid.

Cover the pot and turn heat low to keep at a simmer for 1 hour. It will seem there is far too little liquid for all the vegetables in the pot but don't worry: the vegetables will give off a good amount of water as they cook.

After an hour, stir in the beans (as much as you like). Taste to see if it needs salt, I found it didn't need a speck. Cover and simmer another 20 minutes. Stir in the parsley.

Serve, and be comforted, with a hearty glug of good olive oil over the top of the bowl and some parmesan cheese sprinkled about. It's not the prettiest soup in the world, but my God, it's good. And if you're going to fret, you should Fretwell.


I served some to Panda and she wrinkled her nose. "It doesn't look very good," I said, "but it tastes really good."

"If I don't like it, is there something else?" she asked in a small voice. I assured her there was leftover spaghetti and meatballs to fall back on. "Well...okay," she said reluctantly, and took a small spoonful. She still looked doubtful but she did take the bowl downstairs to the TV room. 

Puttering around the kitchen, I kept an ear to the basement stairs and sure enough, up floated that sound so dear to a mother's heart: a spoon repeatedly clinking against the bowl. Followed soon by footsteps up the stairs and those wonderful words, "Can I have some more?"

Bouchons au Thon

My copy of A Homemade Life was delivered today. You need to have this book. Go order it. I'll wait.

I knew exactly which recipe I was going to make first. In the chapter titled "What France Would Taste Like," Molly Wizenburg tells of her junior year abroad in France, and the French family that hosted her. Her host mother was:

"...Tall, trim, and proper, with a singsong voice and a name that, when properly pronounced, rang like chimes at Sunday mass....

"Aside from her role at home, my host mother was also the French equivalent of a Tupperware saleswoman. She tested and sold silicone baking equipment, the bendy, nonstick baking pans, molds and sheets that have become so popular in recent years... At least one night each week we'd have a "Flexipan dinner," a meal centered on a recipe that my host mother was testing in her silicone molds... My favorite were the bouchons au thon (literally, "tuna corks"), an odd, homely and surprisingly delicious mixture of canned tuna, tomato paste, crème fraiche, Gruyère, and eggs, baked in muffin molds.

"Canned tuna isn't usually something I go crazy for, but these bouchons were special. With a texture somewhere between the filling of a quiche and a freshly made country pâté, they tamed the flat pungency of the canned fish with the sweetness of tomato and the rich butterfat of crème fraiche. We ate them warm with roasted potatoes, and, for lunch the next day, cold with a green salad. They were unlike anything I'd ever had. They tasted like what I imagined France itself would taste like, if it were small enough to fit in my mouth. I gave thanks almost daily for all the France and its Flexipans brought to my life, but mainly for those bouchons au thon.

--"What France Would Taste Like", from A Homemade Life, by Molly Wizenburg (and

After reading this chapter, I folded down a corner of the recipe page. I had to make these.  Furthermore, I had to make them with roasted potatoes and salad, exactly as was written.

Bouchons au Thon

The recipe measurements and directions below yield 8 bouchons, "enough for 4 light eaters." I have kids in daycamp and a husband in the midst of the P90-X workout. There are no light eaters around here. So I doubled the measurements and filled all 12 cups of my muffin tin. 

There were no survivors.

  • 1 6-oz can tuna packed in water, drained well
  • 1 cup lightly packed finely shredded Gruyère
  • 1/3 cup crème fraiche
  • 3 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 3 large eggs (alas, I only had 4 eggs in the house and I'm not sure this affected the recipe or not, as you'll see below)
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped yellow onion
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped Italian parsley
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 325. Grease 8 cups of a standard-sized muffin tin and set aside.

Put the tuna in a medium bowl and break it up with a fork; there should be no chunks larger than a dime. Add the remaining ingredients and stir well with the fork, mashing a bit as you go, until the mixture is thoroughly combined. It will be a soft orange-pink color.

Divide the mixture evenly among the 8 prepared muffin cups.  Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the bouchons look set on top and around the edges. Transfer the tin to a rack and let cool 5 minutes. Carefully run a small, thin knife around the edge of each bouchon to make sure it isn't stuck, then carefully remove them from the tin. They will collapse a bit as they cool.

These were UNBELIEVABLE. Truly unlike anything I'd ever had before and completely perfect with the roasted fingerling potatoes and green salad. My only concern was that even baking for closer to 30 minutes, the bouchons didn't seem to set, and some fell apart when I scooped them out of the tin.  They just seemed more "slumped" than I was expecting. Maybe it was the lack of eggs, or not owning Flexipans, or maybe next time I should try a 350 oven. Then again, Molly does describe them as having a consistency between quiche and pâté. Anyway, regardless of texture and presentation, they were freakin' awesome. Redman picked at one. Panda ate three. Jeeps and I put away four each.

Did I mention I love this book?

Chana Masala

So over vacation I fell in love with Molly Wizenburg, with Orangette, and with A Homemade Life:  Stories and Recipes from my Kitchen Table.  I may be late to this party, but so be it.  She is my new girl crush and this book is, as we speak, being shipped to me to keep for my very own because this library copy for 3 weeks just isn't going to cut it.  This is the world's most perfect book.  This book was written for me.  And I'm afraid I'm going to be a bit of a pain in the ass about it, but so be it. Let's dive right in, shallllllll we?

While not a vegetarian herself, Molly confesses to consistently falling in love with them ("My love is for herbivores only"), and now she is married to one.  So her book includes lots and lots of delicious-sounding recipes for salads and meatless meals.  Including her husband Brandon's recipe for chana masala.

For the uninitiated, chana masala is an Indian dish of chick peas and tomatoes, heavily and beautifully seasoned.   It's fantastic by itself with hunks of pita or naan, or served over rice, which is how I did it tonight.

You can read the full post and story here (and please do go to her blog and if you can, get a copy A Homemade Life because she's just a wonderful, wonderful writer).  But if you want to cut to the chase, let's just cook.

Chana Masala, from A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenburg

  • Good-quality olive oil or coconut oil (coconut oil in this dish is KILLER)
  • 1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
  • 2 medium cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds (I did not have seeds, I used 1/2 tsp of ground cumin)
  • ½ tsp ground coriander
  • ¼ tsp ground ginger
  • 1 tsp garam masala (you can buy this pre-made in the spice aisle, or make your own)
  • 3 cardamom pods, lightly crushed (I did have these because cardamom is my favoritest spice ever, but you could skip the pods as there is cardamom in the garam masala)
  • 1 28-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes
  • 1 tsp kosher salt, or to taste
  • 1 Tbs cilantro leaves, roughly torn, plus more for garnish (I had no cilantro and used parsley)
  • A pinch of cayenne, or to taste
  • 2 15-ounce cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • 6-8 Tbs plain whole-milk yogurt, optional
  • A few lemon wedges, optional

1.  Heat oil in saucepan or Dutch oven over medium heat.  Add the onion, and cook, stirring frequently, until it is deeply caramelized and even charred in some spots. Be patient. The more color, the more full-flavored the final dish will be.

2.  Reduce the heat to low. Add the garlic, cumin seeds, coriander, ginger, garam masala, and cardamom pods, and fry them, stirring constantly, until fragrant and toasty, about 30 seconds. Add ¼ cup water, and stir to scrape up any brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Cook until the water has evaporated away completely. Pour in the juice from can of tomatoes, followed by the tomatoes themselves, using your hands to break them apart as you add them; alternatively, add them whole and crush them in the pot with a potato masher. Add the salt.

3.  Raise the heat to medium, and bring the pot to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, add the cilantro and cayenne, and simmer the sauce gently, stirring occasionally, until it reduces a bit and begins to thicken. Taste, and adjust the seasoning as necessary. Add the chickpeas, stirring well, and cook over low heat for about five minutes. Add 2 Tbs water, and cook for another five minutes. Add another 2 Tbs water, and cook until the water is absorbed, a few minutes more. This process of adding and cooking off water helps to concentrate the sauce’s flavor and makes the chickpeas more tender and toothsome. Taste, and adjust the seasoning as necessary.

You can stir the yogurt into the chana masala before serving, or leave it out and serve with a squeeze of lemon.  However you serve it, do so with a sprinkle of cilantro/parsley and a pinch or two of the garam masala.

Served over coconut rice, this was pass-out delicious and so easy to make.  Plus your house smells amazing while it's cooking.  Jeeps ate two huge bowls and has called dibs on the leftovers for tomorrow (Molly says it's even better the second or third day).