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News / Life / Food

3 recipes that deliver comfort by spoonful

No need for perfection with these classic dishes

By Beth Dooley, Star Tribune
Published: February 28, 2024, 5:56am
2 Photos
Macaroni is a comfort food staple.
Macaroni is a comfort food staple. (Patrick Brownewell/Dreamstime/TNS) (iStock.com) Photo Gallery

Though I’m getting older, my favorite dishes never do. When I reach for the tattered recipe cards and read my grandmother’s faded script, I hear her telling me to “tie back my hair and wash my hands, for pity sake.” And as the kitchen fills with warm roasting, sizzling and simmering scents, though I’m by myself I’m never truly alone.

Let’s be clear, I don’t want to go back in time. I just want to conjure the sense of my grandmother and other cooks I’ve learned from and loved. However, the actual recipes might not be as delicious now as they were then — our palates evolve and ingredients change over time. As a child, I craved my mother’s mac and cheese, but I’m not going to use processed cheese on good pasta or stir condensed milk into my soup. Those pantry staples that served her generation have seen their days.

I’m also not a professional chef. Rather, I’ve been a home cook for nearly 50 years, and I don’t think I’ll ever tire of that. I still love every slow turn of a wooden spoon, the scent of sizzling onions, the whack and thump of kneading dough. I haven’t mastered many culinary techniques; I just get satisfaction from doing the most basic dish meticulously and well. It’s good to slow down, engage my senses and relax my mind after a busy day at the screen. That might mean chopping herbs or lemons by hand, not with the food processor, so I can breathe in their bright smells.

When re-creating well-loved meals, perfection is not the ideal. The wobbly pie crust whispers of foraging summer berries, the delightfully crisp sugar cookies were an accident because I forgot to add baking soda to the mix. These are recipes with stories to tell.

Making something nice for dinner does not mean repeating every ingredient and every step over and over again on a kitchen treadmill. Familiarity should be freeing, a license to try a few new tastes and methods and to have fun, to surprise yourself. Trust your judgment, hone your skills.

The recipes in my “favorites” collection are essential to the way I live now. I know them by heart, but tweak them every time. I’ve streamlined steps, changed ingredients, switched up herbs and spices. I keep these three recipes — mac and cheese, meatloaf and tomato soup — in rotation for those blustery winter nights when hunger and loneliness rattle the kitchen windows.

These old friends are familiar but never quite the same. I’m always looking for ways to lighten and brighten and freshen things up. Just as with all things in our lives, cooking should not stand still.

Meatloaf Muffins With Mashed Potato Topping

Makes 6 (3 1/2-inch muffins)

These meatloaf muffins bake in half the time of a loaf. Any extras may be frozen for a later quick dinner for one. You might try a mix of different ground meats — beef, pork, lamb. Here, a little chopped pancetta gives it a bump. Don’t skimp on the mashed potatoes! Serve with a tart green salad or steamed broccoli on the side. Feel free to add red pepper flakes or ground chili, a shot of Tabasco or sautéed spinach. From Beth Dooley.

2 to 3 tbsp. butter, softened

1 1/2 lb. ground beef (or mix of beef, pork, lamb)

1/4 cup diced pancetta, optional

1/2 cup fresh breadrumbs

1/4 cup ketchup

1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce

1/4 cup diced onion

1 clove garlic, minced

1 large egg

2 tsp. coarse salt

1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

Mashed potatoes (see recipe)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Generously butter 6 (3 1/2-inch) muffin cups.

In a large mixing bowl, work together the ground beef, pancetta, breadcrumbs, ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, onion, garlic, egg, salt and pepper. Pack into the muffin tins. Bake until the meat is browned and crusty on top and cooked through, about 30 to 40 minutes. A digital thermometer should read 165 degrees when inserted in the center. Remove pan from oven and set the heat to broil.

Mound the mashed potatoes on top of each muffin, run under the broiler until the tops are nicely speckled brown. Serve with additional mashed potatoes on the side.

Mashed Potatoes

Serves 4 to 6. From Beth Dooley.

2 lb. baking potatoes (Idaho or Russet), peeled and cut into quarters


1/4 c. (1/2 stick) butter

3/4 c. half and half or whole milk

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Put the potatoes into a large pot and add enough water to cover them by 4 inches. Season with salt. Set over high heat, bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer until the potatoes are fork tender, about 30 minutes.

Drain the potatoes, return to the pot, and mash them with the butter and half and half until smooth and creamy. Taste and season with more salt and pepper as desired.

Mac and Cheese

Serves 6.

Inspired by a New York Times recipe, this recipe relies on ricotta cheese for its creaminess. There’s no need to pre-boil the noodles; they cook in the milk and cheese, absorbing all the flavor to be gooey and rich. Elbow pasta is the traditional shape, but fusilli tends to hold the cheese in all its nooks and crannies. From Beth Dooley.

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter

1 cup whole milk ricotta cheese

2 cup whole milk or half and half

Generous shot Tabasco sauce

Generous pinch ground nutmeg

Generous pinch coarse salt

Generous pinch black pepper

1 lb. sharp cheddar cheese, grated, plus a little more for the topping

1/2 lb. uncooked elbow pasta or other pasta

1/4 cup panko breadcrumbs

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Generously butter a 9-inch (2 quart) baking dish with some of the butter. Cut a piece of aluminum foil large enough to cover the baking dish and butter the dull side.

In the bowl of a food processor, place the ricotta, milk, Tabasco, nutmeg and salt and pepper and purée until smooth. Transfer to a large bowl and stir in the cheese and uncooked pasta. Transfer this to the prepared baking dish and cover tightly with the foil (butter-side down). Bake for 40 minutes.

Remove the foil. Stir the pasta and sprinkle with a little more cheese. Sprinkle with the panko and dot with the remaining butter. Return to the oven and bake until browned, about 25 to 30 minutes. Remove and allow it to rest for 10 minutes before serving.

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Classic Tomato Soup

Serves 4.

Deliciously fresh when made with garden tomatoes, this is pure comfort with canned. I like the fire-roasted tomatoes for their bits of char and a little smoke. You can hold off on the cream and just add a little more stock for a lighter soup. Serve with grilled cheese sandwiches for dunking. From Beth Dooley.

2 tbsp. butter

1/4 cup diced shallot

1/2 cup diced onion

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

3 cup (28-oz. can) diced tomatoes with juices

1 tbsp. chopped fresh thyme or 1 tsp. dried

2 1/2 cup chicken or vegetable stock, or more if needed

1/2 cup heavy cream

Minced fresh parsley, for garnish

Melt the butter in a large, deep saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the shallot and onion, season with salt and pepper, and cook until they soften. Stir in the tomatoes and thyme, reduce the heat and simmer for about 10 minutes. Stir in the stock and cream. Taste and adjust the seasoning and add more stock if needed. Serve garnished with the parsley.