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Recipes from Julie Van Rosendaal: Comfort (food) in the time of COVID

Comfort food can mean a lot of things to a lot of people, but most of us can relate to the idea that there's a strong connection between food and comfort, often rooted in nostalgia.

From chewy flatbread and warm dal, to cheese toast soaked in tomato soup, food offers winter comfort

Soup toast is a version of French onion soup but it can be made with many flavours. This version uses cheese toast and tomato soup. (Julie Van Rosendaal/CBC)

Comfort food can mean a lot of things to a lot of people, but most of us can relate to the idea that there's a strong connection between food and comfort, often rooted in nostalgia.

Though the idea that emotional eating is a bad thing has been reinforced in a lot of us, bringing to mind perhaps drowning your sorrows in tubs of Häagen-Dasz — eating is emotional.

We eat to socialize, to celebrate, to comfort, to support each other and ourselves. (I think a big reason so many struggle to be inspired to cook for just one or two is because for many of us, so much of the pleasure in cooking is cooking for other people.)

Cooking is a way we can all take care of ourselves, and each other. It's a small thing we can do regularly — we need to eat all the time anyway — and take comfort and pleasure in. Especially now we all need things to look forward to. And if that's dinner, that's something.

Soup-soaked Cheese Toast

This tomato soup can literally be made with tomatoes in any form — fresh, overripe, frozen, canned, sauce, paste, juice. (Julie Van Rosendaal/CBC)

Chef Gabrielle Hamilton once shared a recipe for chowder-soaked toast in the New York Times, and I found the idea irresistible — a sort of reverse French onion soup in which the toast goes into the bottom of the bowl and the soup is ladled overtop, which softens the toast enough to eat with a spoon.

Toast has more complex flavours than straight-up bread, and softens appealingly rather than turning to mush.

I started making a version with cheese toast and tomato soup (one of my favourite things is bread in any form, dragged through red sauce). 

But when you think about it, the possibilities here are endless. I've ladled creamy mushroom soup over buttered toast, and mulligatawny over day-old naan. 

This tomato soup can literally be made with tomatoes in any form — fresh, overripe, frozen, canned, sauce, paste, juice.

One of my best batches came from two squishy tomatoes that had been languishing on the counter, plus half a bottle of leftover Caesar mix (without the booze). As with most soups, use this as a rough guide.

Soup Ingredients:

  • olive or canola oil, for cooking
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • salt, to taste
  • 1 garlic clove, crushed
  • 2-4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
  • 1 28 oz. (796 ml) can good tomatoes — whole, diced, crushed or San Marzano-style
  • a few basil leaves or a sprig of thyme
  • ¼ cup whipping cream (optional)

Toast Ingredients: 

  • thickly sliced crusty bread
  • butter
  • grated aged cheddar, Gouda, or your favourite cheese

Set a medium pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat, add a drizzle of oil and a chunk of butter (about 2 tbsp) and cook the onion for a few minutes, sprinkling with salt, until soft. Add the garlic and cook for another minute.

Add the stock, tomatoes and basil or thyme and bring to a simmer. Cook for 20 minutes or so, until the tomatoes are very soft and the soup thickens a bit.

Remove from the heat, add a splash of cream if you like, and purée with a hand-held immersion blender (I do this right in the pot, just remember to pull out any sprigs of thyme you tossed in) until it's as smooth or chunky as you like.

Meanwhile, toast your bread, butter it, sprinkle with cheese and melt the cheese in the toaster oven or under the broiler. Place the cheese toast in shallow bowls, and ladle the soup overtop.

Serves 2-4.

Squash and Red Lentil Dal

Use up your baked winter squash to make a comforting dal, served up warm with rice or naan. (Julie Van Rosendaal/CBC)

To roast winter squash like buttercup, kabocha, kuri or a small pumpkin, poke it a couple times with a knife all the way through and roast it directly on the oven rack or in a pie plate or other shallow dish if you worry about it dripping.

Roast for about an hour, until it's tender to the touch.

Cool and store in the fridge for up to five days. When you're ready to use it, cut it in half, scoop out the seeds, and then scoop the flesh directly into soup or stews like this one.

Measurements here are pretty lax, so don't feel you need to be precise.

I used a spice blend from chef Aman Dosanj in Kelowna, but you could use individual spices or a dry blend or paste you like — mine contained fennel, cumin, dried chiles and black pepper. 

Ingredients:

  • canola or other mild vegetable oil or ghee, for cooking
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 1 small jalapeño, seeded and chopped
  • salt, to taste
  • 2 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 1 tbsp grated ginger
  • 2-3 tsp curry spice blend or cumin, turmeric, coriander, black pepper, fennel, mustard seed, curry leaves, in any combination you like
  • 1/3 cup (ish) chopped cilantro (I use stems in the stew, and the leaves on top)
  • half a roasted winter squash (such as buttercup, butternut, Hubbard, kabocha, kuri, pumpkin), or a couple cups of cooked or roasted squash 
  • 1/3 cup dry split red lentils
  • 2 cups chicken or vegetable stock

In a large saucepan, heat a drizzle of oil and cook the onion and jalapeño, sprinkled with a good pinch of salt, for a few minutes, until softened.

Add the garlic and ginger, curry blend, paste or spices and cilantro and cook for another minute or two.

Scoop seeds out of the squash and discard them, and then scoop the flesh into the saucepan.

Add the lentils and enough stock (and water, if you need it) to cover it all by an inch or so, and bring to a simmer.

Cook, stirring often, until the lentils are soft and the mixture is saucy — add more stock and/or water if it needs it. Coconut milk would be delicious, too. Add salt if it needs it, and serve warm, with rice or naan.

Serves 4.

Easy Naan

When making the simple, chewy flatbread, first divide the dough into pieces and roll out very thin on an unfloured surface before frying. (Julie Van Rosendaal/CBC)

This has become my go-to recipe for a simple, chewy flatbread — this quantity makes four smallish naan, but is easily doubled if you want more.

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • ¼ tsp baking powder
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • 1-2 tbsp butter or other fat, softened
  • 1 tbsp canola or other mild vegetable oil (plus more for cooking)
  • 1/3 cup water
  • butter or ghee, for cooking (optional)

Instructions:

In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder and salt. Add the butter and oil and blend. Add the water and stir until you have a soft dough.

Turn it out onto the countertop and knead it for a few minutes, or until it's smooth.

Cover with a tea towel and let rest for at least 20 minutes.

A heavy cast iron skillet is idea for cooking naan, over high heat with a drizzle of oil. (Julie Van Rosendaal/CBC)

When you're ready to cook the naan, divide the dough into four pieces and roll out, very thin, on an un-floured surface.

Heat a heavy (cast iron is ideal) skillet over high heat with a drizzle of oil (and a piece of butter or ghee, if you like) and cook the naan until golden on the bottom (and hopefully generating some large bubbles on the top), then flip and cook for another minute, until golden on the other side.

Repeat with the remaining dough, adding more oil/butter/ghee to the pan as needed.

Makes 4 naan.

Listen to Julie's full interview on the Calgary Eyeopener here:

Our food guide Julie van Rosendaal finds comfort in the fridge this cool Tuesday morning. 7:55

About the Author

Julie Van Rosendaal

Calgary Eyeopener's food guide

Julie Van Rosendaal talks about food trends, recipes and cooking tips on the Calgary Eyeopener every Tuesday at 8:20 a.m. MT. The best-selling cookbook author is a contributing food editor for the Globe and Mail, and writes for other publications across Canada.

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