One great thing about the doldrums of winter (i.e., February) is the opportunity to prepare comfort food for dinner. It was surprising to me to learn from several different surveys that Americans’ No. 1 comfort food is pizza. It’s not that I don’t like pizza; it’s just that I would not list it on my comfort food list. My favorite comfort foods fill the kitchen with scrumptious smells and the promise of a tasty, hearty meal for dinner.
My mom never used a cookbook. She cooked what I called “Montana Cuisine” – meat, fish (only fresh caught), game (deer and game birds), potatoes, spaghetti, salad, vegetables (garden grown or foraged) and (wild) mushrooms. Everything she made smelled absolutely delicious. All of her meals were comfort food. I have to note that she could not make a tray of cookies without burning them. Then she said with a smile, “They’re just a little brown.”
When I graduated from high school, I went to the local purveyor of books – Sax & Fryer – and purchased the 1965 edition of “Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book.” Since I hadn’t paid much attention to my mom’s cooking, I was determined to learn how to boil an egg, cook a pot roast, make potato salad and the like. To this day, I turn to the tattered tab for “Casseroles” to find the tried and true recipe for “Hamburger Pie” that my kids would most certainly call their childhood comfort food.
Since my mom cooked to the beat of her own drum, many years ago, I asked her to write down some of my favorite dishes of hers. She gave me four: beef ’n’ noodles, Spanish rice, Swiss steak and dressing. I cherish how she wrote the recipes with her simplicity and good humor.
“Noodles and beef is just what it says. Boil some beef – 3 or 4 hours – (short ribs are okay). Add onions and celery the last hour, if you like. Then add some noodles (egg noodles).” That’s it!
My dad was the consummate hunter/fisher and had some of his favorite recipes to prepare. He also had comfort foods from his childhood of Hungarian heritage. One of the absolute best of his dishes was Hungarian stuffed cabbage rolls served with his homemade sauerkraut. The ground meat he used was deer, which he brought home every year from his hunt.
My mom hand-wrote my dad’s recipe for pheasant where the secret was the little cheesecloth bag of pickling spices and clove of garlic. Served over spaghetti, this meal was a very special treat – one I cannot duplicate sans pheasant. Another spaghetti sauce secret my dad loved was the addition of ½-teaspoon of fennel seed to the seasonings. He raved about the aroma and flavor of fennel.
My comfort food memories would not be complete without mentioning mushrooms and perch filets. My dad took me mushroom hunting every year. He knew where to find morels, buttons and what we called “tree” mushrooms. The little perch from Dailey Lake were a nuisance on his fishing line until he learned how to filet them. A dinner of fried perch and fried mushrooms was to die for. It elicits a Pavlov’s dog response even now.
This day (Sunday) is another gray, chilly winter day. But with football to watch and an aromatic pot-roast simmering in the slow cooker, life is good.