Way back in 2010, in a tiny kitchen in Paris, I started cooking. It was for practical reasons, really. I was living in Paris, making a monthly stipend from the French government to work in a high school as an English teaching assistant. Paris was an expensive city, and French culture was one of pride in food: pride in eating a meal you cooked with others, and also pride in having others dine out for your cooking.
With that, there were minimal takeout options, aside from Domino’s Pizza and McDonald’s. Both are just as good, albeit better, in France, but more reserved for the days after you drank too much Côtes du Rhône and missed the last Métro home. Not exactly a weekday dinner option.
On nearly every street corner in Paris, there was a market selling fresh produce, and every day on my way back from the train station, I’d pass a larger one, a supermarket called le marché Rungis. Having seen my roommates cook, I was inspired to try something on my own, mainly for the days when they were teaching late or tutoring and I was flying solo for dinner. So, one day I stopped into le marché Rungis.
“Start with something you know, something you’ve eaten a lot,” Jocelyn, one of my roommates, had said. So I picked up a pack of sweet Italian sausage, a jar of arrabiata sauce, a box of penne pasta, and two red bell peppers: the ingredients for Rigatoni Abruzzi. Rigatoni Abruzzi is an entrée at Bertucci’s, a restaurant that had become my family’s go-to spot for meeting my grandparents. The service was reliable, it almost never closed, and it had a decent Italian menu that they liked. Plus, my grandparents were in their 80s, Bertucci’s was close to their condo, and the restaurant was light enough and quiet enough that they could both see and hear us.
I think of Rigatoni Abruzzi as my introduction to cooking. It was simple, with just four ingredients. There was minimal prep. Nothing needed to be pressed, pounded, or minced, all skills that I would learn later and would’ve been painstaking in the beginning, probably because some of them, like mincing, still are. And nothing needed to be added to the ingredients. Because I bought pre-made pasta sauce, it along with the sausage added enough flavor that I didn’t need to add any seasonings.
After a long day of teaching in English, interacting in French, and tutoring in English, it was comforting to stop by le marché Rungis, arrive home, add a scoop of olive oil to a skillet, and set one of the stovetop burners to 6 (medium high). Cooking this dish was also reliable. Because the ingredients, the prep, and the steps were simple, it produced just about the same result every time.
Since then, I’ve started cooking more complicated recipes, which don’t guarantee the same result every time. Still, cooking remains comforting. Since we’ve just marked the start of January, which is winter for many of us in the United States, and since we’ve just marked the start of 2020, here are 5 comfort food recipes that were my favorite to make this past decade.
Below is the version I used, taken from Bertucci’s and modified a bit. You can vary the sauce by using a different pre-made variety, or by making your own. This dish works best with a mildly spicy tomato sauce. You can also substitute turkey or meatless sausage, which I’ve started doing!
32 oz arrabiata sauce
1 jar roasted red peppers, chopped
4 sweet Italian sausages
1 box rigatoni pasta
Parmesan cheese, to taste
Heat a non-stick skillet over medium heat. Add sausage to the pan and sauté for approximately six minutes on each side. The sausages should be brown in color. Add about two tablespoons of water to the pan and cover for an additional six minutes to finish cooking. Set sausages aside to cool and slice when cooled. In a large saucepan, add the sauce, and bring to boil. Reduce heat to low. Add the red peppers and sausage to the pot and simmer on low for an additional twenty to 30 minutes. Cook pasta as directed on the box with an additional dash of salt and olive oil. Pour the sauce over the pasta and garnish with Parmesan cheese.
2. Slow Cooker Creamy Lemon Chicken
Taken from Life, Love, and Sugar, this slow cooker recipe has just a touch of sweetness, and the lemon is a great reminder of warmer months and sunshine during the winter. A few years ago I developed a dairy allergy, so here is a the dairy-free version I make:
6 tbsp vegan butter
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1/2 cup chicken broth
1/2 cup soy milk
1/2 cup lemon juice
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp ground black pepper
1 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp dried oregano
1/8 tsp paprika
4 1/2 tbsp cornstarch
Add the butter to a microwave safe bowl and heat until melted. Set aside. Place the chicken breasts into a 6-quart slow cooker. In a large bowl or measuring cup, combine the chicken broth, soy milk and lemon juice, then add the garlic, salt, pepper, thyme, oregano and paprika. Add the melted, cooled butter to the lemon mixture and stir to combine. Pour the lemon butter mixture over the chicken, then cover the slow cooker and cook on HIGH for 3 hours or LOW for 7 hours. Remove about 1 cup of the lemon butter mixture from the slow cooker and whisk in the corn starch. Add it back into the slow cooker and stir to combine. Place the top back on the slow cooker and cook for another hour, then serve.
3. Turkey Meat Sauce
My husband and I love a good pasta Bolognese! I love to make this on a Sunday, portion a few servings for lunches throughout the week, and then freeze the remaining sauce for an easy meal on a busy night. I prefer ground turkey over ground beef, and have tried several different varieties by subbing one for the other. This one from Culinary Hill is my favorite. See modified recipe below:
1 pound ground turkey
1 medium onion chopped (about 1 cup)
4 cloves garlic minced
1 (28 ounce) can crushed tomatoes
1 (15 ounce) can tomato sauce
1 (6 ounce) can tomato paste
2 tablespoons sugar
1½ teaspoons dried basil
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
1 bay leaf
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
In a large saucepan or Dutch oven, cook beef and onion over medium heat until mostly browned, about 5 minutes. Stir in garlic until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in crushed tomatoes, tomato sauce, tomato paste, sugar, basil, Italian seasoning, bay leaf, 1 teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon pepper. Simmer uncovered for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove bay leaf. Add more salt and pepper to taste if desired.
4. Sheet Pan Cajun Chicken
I’m still not great at knowing when chicken is fully cooked if I cook it on the stovetop, so if I’m short on time, I almost always bake chicken. This is a great baked chicken recipe, and an easy way to incorporate vegetables into a meal without having to cook them separately. I’ve taken this recipe from Everyday Made Fresh and modified it. Here’s the modified version:
2 boneless skinless chicken breasts
1 lb purple and Yukon gold potatoes peeled and chopped
4 tbsp olive oil divided
2 1/2 tsp paprika
2 tsp garlic powder
2 tsp salt
1 dried oregano
1 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp onion powder
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Line a sheet pan with foil and set aside. Mix together all of the seasonings and set aside. Drizzle olive oil on each chicken breast, about 1/2 tablespoon per, and rub it on each side. Season each chicken breast per side with the seasoning, using just enough to cover, a place the chicken on the sheet pan. Place the chopped potatoes in a large bowl. Coat with 2 tablespoons of olive oil and sprinkle the rest of the seasoning in the bowl. Toss to coat. Place the potatoes around the chicken on the sheet pan. Bake for 40-45 minutes.
5. Vegan Chocolate Chip Cookies
There is a recipe for vegan chocolate chip cookies from Tasty that is so good, I’m recommending it again in a blog post. You can read my post about my quest to find an authentic chocolate chip cookie recipe after I became dairy-free here, and also check out the recipe to try them yourself!
Happy cooking, and Happy 2020!