I myself don’t mind November, nature’s signal to slow down and fatten up, like a bear preparing for hibernation. It's the one month of the year when I feel permission from the cosmos to be a little lazy. I find solace from the sky's grayness in the kitchen where I go on long binges, cooking and baking up comfort food. This earns me high marks in the wife, and mom, department, whereas other months, usually in the spring, I’m not as popular when I serve up meal after meal of quinoa, and legumes, and lightly dressed salads. But not in November. I want something fulsome, something oozing, creamy, and laden with fat. Like Fettuccine Alfredo.
Coincidentally, I’ve been working on an article about butter, that indispensable ingredient in comfort food. It so happens that one of the most renowned buttermakers in the country, Diane St. Clair, lives in nearby Orwell. On her cleverly named Animal Farm, she makes farmstead cultured butter that’s served at some of America’s best restaurants, such as The French Laundry, Per Se, and The Inn at Little Washington. It’s some mighty good butter, and hardly resembles in color, flavor, and texture the bland sticks you buy at the grocery store.
Diane taught me how to make cultured butter in my own kitchen, an easy but messy process, and ooooh my, is it ever delicious when swirled into sauces
or melted into a heaping bowl of smashed potatoes.
Of course potatoes, up at the top of my list of essential comfort foods, are more than passable when roasted with whole cloves of garlic and a drizzle of olive oil, and then topped with fried sage leaves.
Roasted meats balance that plate out. I’m thinking pork tenderloin rubbed with rosemary, fennel, and more garlic,
Nothing cuts the chill quite like the earthy aroma of roasting meat, except maybe braised meat, and a glass of red wine.
As for a soundtrack to my comfort food binges, I usually turn to something like Lucinda Williams' Essence or k.d. lang's Hymns of the 49th Parallel. Ok, maybe comfort isn’t the apt word for their music, but these two artists provide a suitable backdrop to this eleventh month.
For those who don’t eat red meat, like my daughter Isabel, there are plenty of other options. She just started her first semester of college and loves everything about it except the food. The fact that Isabel really misses my home cooking makes me happy, I’m not ashamed to admit, so when she was back home recently for her fall break I made some of her favorites, like butternut squash soup with pepitas and a splash of maple syrup.
And for breakfast, buttermilk biscuits made with Animal Farm’s fresh buttermilk and topped with some of my homemade cultured butter.
On the subject of breakfast, nothing gets my family out of bed on a cold, drizzly morning like a steaming stack of pancakes or some French toast doused with maple syrup. Chris is usually the short order cook in our household, often assisted by Faye, but sometimes I’ll get creative and add an embellishment, like this lavender that happened to be blooming out of season on a windowsill.
When I feel like we should lighten the menu up so we don’t all end up 20 pounds overweight by New Year’s, I’ll go with a meal like polenta with braised escarole and Shiitake mushrooms.
Pan searing the mushrooms brings out their meatiness, and I like to slice the polenta into pieces that I rub with Parmesan and then pan fry, so it’s golden and crunchy on the outside and creamy in the middle. Light? Maybe, but definitely more than satisfying.
And with a meal like that, we’ve saved room for dessert: cinnamon apple crisp. It continues the theme of golden and crunchy on the outside and creamy in the middle, a texture combination that always works for me.
After all that indulgence, I’m ready to curl up by the wood stove with a good book, probably a cookbook since it’s time to start planning for that paean to the ultimate in comfort food—Thanksgiving.
This classic recipe calls for just three main ingredients to make the sauce—butter, heavy cream, and Parmesan—so use the very best that you can find.
16 ounces Fettuccine
8 tablespoons unsalted butter (cultured, if possible)
1 cup heavy cream
1½ cups freshly grated Parmesan
pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
salt and freshly ground pepper
In a large pot of boiling water, cook the pasta according to its instructions, but removing it 2 minutes early. While the pasta is cooking, pour the cream into a large saucepan and stir over medium heat, about 2 minutes. Add the butter and cook until it melts, stirring occasionally, about 3 more minutes. Remove the saucepan from the heat, and drain the pasta when it has finished cooking.
Put the saucepan back on the burner at low heat and add the pasta. Gently toss the pasta to coat. Add the Parmesan and nutmeg, and toss about a minute more until the cheese has melted and the sauce has thickened. Season with salt and pepper and serve immediately.