Monday, October 26, 2020
Oct. 26, 2020

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Creating comfort food amid Clark County’s smoke-pocalypse

Poor air quality doesn’t dull Columbian food writer’s creativity in the kitchen

By , Columbian News Assistant
8 Photos
This hearty Italian stew takes its inspiration from minestrone soup, but is thickened with (shhhh!) leftover mashed potatoes.
This hearty Italian stew takes its inspiration from minestrone soup, but is thickened with (shhhh!) leftover mashed potatoes. (Photos by MONIKA SPYKERMAN/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

As I spent last week watching the sky shift from sulfurous yellow to soupy gray-orange, judging the air quality by whether I could see the other side of my yard, I decided it was best not to leave my house. It was time to Use What We Had (capital letters intended to convey that I’m using my best “keep calm and carry on” inner voice). This week’s article, then, is a glimpse of the inner workings of my kitchen. For your reading pleasure, I have documented exactly what I made for dinner on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, and how each meal came into existence from the farthest reaches of my fridge and pantry. Perhaps it will inspire you to free yourself from recipes and improvise with what you have in your kitchen.

Monday: Is it soup or is it stew? It’s stoup.

At 5 p.m. Monday, the smoke pressed up against our windows like an animal scratching to get inside. I just wanted something simple, warm and nourishing. I opened the fridge to find leftover mashed potatoes, and I thought: That’s the perfect thickener for a soup or stew. But what else should go in it?

I had half a pound of frozen ground beef, leftover from meatloaf, and I had about 10 tomatoes sitting on the counter, easing past ripeness into mushiness. I needed a soup or stew that was beefy and tomato-based, and that’s minestrone! The rest of the ingredients presented themselves: onions and carrots, navy beans, spinach and mushrooms.

Whenever I make anything Italian-ish, I start by drizzling olive oil into the pan and tossing in diced garlic. The garlic flavors the oil and fills the house with a wonderful aroma, unless you burn the garlic, then that is a bad aroma which takes days to dissipate (not recommended during a smoke-pocalypse). I added salt, dried oregano and dried basil, so that a fragrant cloud formed over the pot. Next came onions and carrots from the back of my vegetable crisper (only slightly slimy). Then I added tomatoes, mashed potatoes, navy beans, canned mushrooms and frozen spinach.

While the soup (stew?) was simmering, I cubed part of a baguette so stale it could hammer nails, then tossed them with olive oil, salt, and herbs. I toasted them at 400 degrees until golden brown.

I ladled the steaming soup (stew?) into bowls with the croutons and shredded fresh mozzarella, and we all had seconds. Stoup does a body good.

Tuesday: Chicken cacciatore, sort of.

On Tuesday, the smoke was just as oppressive and I still had too many tomatoes, making me think those things could survive a nuclear winter. (Please, 2020 — forget I said that!)

I recalled the sublime chicken cacciatore that my mother used to make, delicious enough to satisfy any god in the Roman pantheon. I decided to make, well, not that, but something distantly related.

Again, I started with olive oil, garlic, salt and herbs, followed by onions and carrots. On top of this melange I nestled three boneless, skinless chicken thighs, straight from the freezer. I added a can of mushrooms and frozen tricolor bell peppers, plus as many tomatoes as I could jam in there.

While the chicken was bubbling away on the stove, I cooked a big pot of mini-penne (so cute!) and sauteed frozen green beans and two cloves of garlic in a tablespoon of butter. Then I sliced the rest of my stale baguette with a hacksaw, covered each piece with butter, a dusting of garlic salt, and flurry of Parmesan. After toasting, they emerged harder than diamonds, but pleasantly garlicky.

It wasn’t my mother’s cacciatore, but it was scrumptious, and we enjoyed licking the butter off our crouton diamonds.

Wednesday: Quomforting quiche.

Quiche is one of my top comfort foods, right up there with all the other foods. But still, the warm cheesiness of a big wedge of quiche is centering in a way that a big wedge of lettuce is not. After a bleak week of monochromatic grayness wherein the cleansing power of rainfall kept disappearing into the future, my soul cried out for a full measure of quiche-y comfort.

I made a double shortcrust and set half aside for apple pie later. I am exceedingly inept at shortcrust, but I make it anyway, because I feel so powerful while holding a heavy rolling pin. Dough sees me and flinches. Anyhow, it’s not pretty nor flaky but it does have lots of butter, so that’s good enough.

I made the filling from 4 eggs, 1 cup milk, 1 cup shredded cheddar cheese and three grated string cheese sticks. (Pro tip: sprinkle the cheese with a tablespoon of flour to keep it from sinking to the bottom.) I added a dash of salt and a heaping tablespoon of chopped fresh parsley. I then looked around for any meat or vegetable that could benefit from being engulfed in a warm covering of cheese and egg. I settled on breakfast sausage, cherry tomatoes and frozen spinach.

I baked the crust in the oven at 450 for 10 minutes while browning the sausage, sauteing the spinach and quartering the tomatoes. I added them to the beaten egg and milk mixture, then stirred in the cheese. I poured everything into the hot crust, and it went back in the oven at 350 degrees for 50 minutes.

I served the quiche with tater tots (another comfort food) and a tomato-cucumber-feta salad. I was indeed comforted and cheered, especially since my husband cleaned up the kitchen. It may have had something to do with the rolling pin.