Sunday, February 7, 2010

Comforts & Cravings

Working in education these days feels a bit like being aboard a sinking ship. Every other day it seems we’ve sprung a new leak or lost another sail, and I feel sure it’s a matter of time before the mast will come crashing down. It’s downright depressing, and the media’s propensity for stirring up fear and anxiety isn’t helping. Educators are afraid for their jobs, while students are anxious about the “real world” that awaits upon graduation. Parents fear that anything less than straight A’s and stellar SAT’s will be the ruin of their child’s future, and everyone, yes everyone, is being told to do more with less. This is honestly a taxing environment in which to spend one’s time, and I find myself seeking some form of comfort at the end of every day.

Now, I don’t know about you, but for me, comfort comes in many forms, and if balanced, I think they all have their place. Sometimes my impulse is to sink deep into a yoga class, breathing away the stress, and sweating my way to renewal. Afterward I’ll inevitably crave something wholesome and homemade, causing me to dig through my recipes in search of fresh inspiration. Recently, I remembered a recipe for celery root soup I’d seen on Oprah over winter break, and during a particularly stressful week in January, it seemed just the thing. The recipe intrigued me because it was thickened with a clever vegan ingredient: cashew cream. So I made the celery root soup, and it was surprising in its simple yet layered flavor. It had the creamy texture of a soup based in dairy and potatoes, but it felt healthier and lighter than its traditional counterpart. Along with a piece of toasted whole grain bread from my favorite local bakery, it hit the spot several stressful days in a row. (Post continues below this recipe.)

Adapted from The Conscious Cook by Tal Ronnen
Serves 6

I halved this recipe and I enjoyed a few small bowls with some remaining to freeze for later.

Kosher salt
3 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
2 medium celery roots, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 large onion, chopped
2 quarts chicken or vegetable broth
1 bay leaf
1 cup thick Cashew Cream (recipe follows)
Freshly ground black pepper
Chopped chives for garnish

Place a large stockpot over medium heat. Sprinkle the bottom with a pinch of salt and heat for 1 minute. Add the oil and heat for 30 seconds, being careful not to let it smoke. This will create a nonstick effect. (Cool trick!)

Add the celery root, celery, and onion and sauté for 6 to 10 minutes, stirring often, until soft but not brown. Add the stock and bay leaf, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Add the Cashew Cream and simmer for an additional 10 minutes.

Working in batches, pour the soup into a blender, cover the lid with a towel (the hot liquid tends to erupt), and blend on high. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Ladle into bowls. Garnish with chives and serve with something crusty and delicious to sop up the soup from the sides of the bowl.

Makes 1 ½ - 2 cups

1 cup whole raw cashews, rinsed very well under cold water.

Put the cashews in a bowl and add cold water to cover them. Cover the bowl and refrigerate overnight. Drain the cashews and rinse under cold water. Place in a blender with enough fresh cold water to cover them by 1 inch. Blend on high for several minutes until very smooth.

Now, I don’t want you to get the wrong impression of me, so I’m going to be honest and tell you that when I’m stressed, I don’t always crave yoga and healthy vegan soup. Sometimes I stand over my counter with a bag of tortilla chips, a block of cheese, home-roasted salsa and an avocado, and for twenty minutes straight I build little bits of fatty chip heaven. I’ve had many valuable end-of-the-day conversations with roommates and former loves while engaged in this compulsive snacking ritual, and most cannot resist its charm.

Still other times my stress compels me to reach deep into my food memory and seek solace in carbs and dairy and salty pork products. A recent end-of-the-week craving had my roommate and I messing with Ina Garten’s recipe for Mac and Cheese. The meal was enjoyed with a particularly lovely bottle of Malbec, while viewing the film Bridget Jones’s Diary. Hot, gooey pasta, ruby-red wine, much laughter and Colin Firth; that might just be the perfect way to spend a rainy Friday night with a good friend.

So, let’s summarize: the future feels uncertain; pretty much everyone is stressed out; and the pressure seems unbearable at times. Every day it feels like this boat is sinking, yet the beauty of it is, none of us is fighting this fight alone. In spite of everything, there are moments of peace; there is laughter; there is beautiful food; and there are lovely people to share it all with. This too shall pass, and maybe, just maybe, we’ll look back on these Armageddon-ish times, with fondness and nostalgia, grateful for the lessons we learned.

Adapted from Barefoot Contessa Family Style
Serves 6 to 8

We halved this and got nearly four healthy meals each out of it. Ina may be a bit more abundant in portions than we. Yikes.

Kosher salt
1 lb. macaroni (or something spiraly and fun like Cellentani)
1 quart milk (I used 2%)
6 Tbsp. butter
½ cup all-purpose flour
12 oz. Gruyere cheese, grated (4 cups - I used cave aged Gruyere)
8 oz. extra-sharp aged white Cheddar, grated (2 cups)
½ tsp. freshly ground pepper
½ tsp. nutmeg (freshly grated is lovely)
1 ½ cups fresh white bread crumbs (I used country french bread & pulverized it in a mini food processor)
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan
A couple Tbsp. freshly chopped rosemary, to your taste
Frozen peas or prosciutto

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Drizzle oil into a large pot of boiling salted water. Add the pasta and cook according to the directions, 6-8 minutes. (Don’t overcook!) Drain well.

Meanwhile, heat the milk in a small saucepan, but don’t boil it. Melt 6 tablespoons butter in a large (4 quart) pot and add the flour. Cook over low heat for 2 minutes, stirring with a whisk. While whisking, add the hot milk and cook for a minute or two more, until thickened and smooth. Off the heat, add the Gruyere, Cheddar, 1 tablespoon salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Add the cooked macaroni and stir well. We added frozen peas at this point, which was yummy. I'm thinking prosciutto would be delicious as well. Once you've finished adding any extras, pour into a 3-quart baking dish.

Mix the breadcrumbs, parmesan and rosemary and sprinkle generously over the top of the pasta. Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until the sauce is bubbly and the breadcrumbs are browned on top.

Enjoy with a green salad, a nice glass of wine, and good friends.


  1. Jen, have you tried Brazil nuts as a variation of the Cashew Cream Celery Soup theme. As much as I love Cashews, Brazil Nuts are quite a bit healthier. If you try it let me know if it works and I will do same when time permits. Will comment later on the rest of the enjoyable blog. Keep them coming!

  2. Dear Jennifer,
    I just got back from celebrating Michael's 21st birthday (again) cruise, and I can commiserate with you about plan b,c and d in life. Certainly one part of my life is finished, and to try to see beyond that fills me with dread. The problem is I liked my old plan A, and I don't want to move on but I know I must.
    I love you and will see you soon,