Posts Tagged ‘Comfort food’

Chili and Cornbread

Time to get back into the blogging habit…despite the fact that life continues to be something of a whirlwind at the Skena household, we are at least cooking and eating together again.  Since we’re both just a teensy bit stressed with huge amounts of work these days, the eating is falling into the ‘special treat’/comfort food categories.  This weekend, that meant chili and cornbread for three meals as we were both umbilically attached to our computers. 🙂

I wish I could tell you that I have THE perfect chili recipe.  But to be honest, every version that I try always tastes pretty similar to me.  With the exception of Cincinnati Chili which I LOVE, and Michael does not love.  Cincinnati Chili has cinnamon and cocoa powder in it, and is served over spaghetti with raw onions and shredded cheddar cheese on top.  It is such a weird dish, but it really works for me.  Michael likes it as long as he’s not prepared for actual chili, and can consider it as a separate dish.  I’ve been craving it recently, so hopefully we’ll make some soon and I’ll show you the recipe, in case any of you are up for an adventure in alternative chilis.

But for regular chili, I don’t have much exciting to share.  I have the recipe my mom always made, which we all love.  Michael has a recipe that he made by combining other recipes, which is also very good.  And I have this easy black bean chili recipe that I am a little surprised to say is from Rachel Ray (I don’t usually cook her food, but I saw this on Food Network and thought it looked good).  All these recipes are good and they all taste about the same.  But maybe that’s what we’re all looking for in a bowl of steaming, hearty chili on a cold, rainy day – something comforting and familiar.  This weekend I used the Rachel Ray recipe, though I made my own changes and variations.   The only significant thing about it is that it uses black beans, which I much prefer to kidney beans.  I added oregano since it needed a little earthiness.

I do, however, have a killer cornbread recipe.  Of course, it’s Barefoot Contessa.  This cornbread is on the sweeter, cakier side but has great flavor from jalepenos and green onions.  It makes a giant 9×13 pan, which I love, because the cornbread freezes and reheats quite well, so we’ll get a ‘free’ side dish to soup or chili again in the future.  Because this cornbread is cakey, you need to be a little careful with it during preparation.  As with other flour-based baked goods, keep a light hand with your stirring.  Rigorous stirring develops the gluten in the flour, which will make your end result  denser and flatter instead of fluffy with a light crumb.  Give the mix as few turns of a gentle spatula as you can to still get it thoroughly mixed.  And then be sure to let it sit for the full 20 minutes recommended before baking.  It will rise and fluff quite a bit, which you’ll definitely want in the finished product.  When I’ve skipped this step, I’ve definitely noticed the difference.

One quick tip that you can use for both these recipes: too many times I have set my eyeballs aflame taking out my contacts hours after chopping jalepenos.  An easy way I’ve found to de-seed hot peppers is to chop off the top with the stem and then cut the jalepeno in half length-wise.  Then use a 1/4 or 1/2 teaspoon to scrape down the jalepeno, removing not only the seeds but the membranes holding them, which are what actually contain all the heat.  Just scrape them into the sink or trash, and you’ll have them well seeded without ever touching the hot parts with your fingers!

It’s still raining and grey here in Chapel Hill as we finish our third and final meal of chili and cornbread, and just writing about it makes me feel ready to make another pot.  Maybe Cincinnati Chili will be coming sooner than I thought…


Black Bean Chili (adapted from Rachel Ray)

2 lbs. ground beef

1 Tbs olive oil

Salt and pepper

1 Tbs Worcestershire sauce

1 red onion, chopped

4 cloves garlic, chopped

1 red bell pepper, chopped

1 jalepeno pepper, seeded and chopped

3 Tbs chili powder

1 Tbs cumin

1 Tbs dried oregano, or 1 tsp ground oregano

¼ tsp cayenne pepper

1 cup of beef or vegetable stock

1 14.5 oz can of diced tomatoes

1 14.5 oz can of tomato puree

2 15 oz cans of black beans, drained and rinsed

1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro

  1. In a large pot, brown ground beef in oil over high heat until browned and crumbly.  Drain off most of the fat, then season the meat with salt and pepper.  Add the Worcestershire sauce.
  2. Reduce heat to medium-high and add the onion, garlic, red pepper and jalepeno.  Season the veggies and meat with the chili powder, cumin, oregano and cayenne pepper and cook together for 5 minutes.
  3. Stir in the broth and scrape up pan drippings.  Stir in the diced and pureed tomatoes and black beans.  When the mixture comes to a bubble, reduce heat to simmer and let it cook about 15 minutes.  Add cilantro to the pot or serve on top.

Ina Garten’s Jalepeno Cheddar Cornbread


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Cheese Grits

We’ve had quite a few cold, rainy days here in North Carolina the past few weeks.  There were a few spectacular warm and sunny days thrown in the mix, just to keep us from going completely insane, but in general it’s been flat-out dreary.  I would like to blame it on the weather and not acknowledge that it’s a regular old carb craving, but whatever the reason, I just cannot get enough CHEESE GRITS these days!

I think I love everything about cheese grits.  I really like the texture, actually, which is what weirds some people out.  I like the nice hot goopiness in a bowl.  It’s a perfect breakfast food because it’s warm and a little sweet but still cheesy and in this version below, a little peppery!  I love a little cayenne pepper in cheesy dishes (so key in a good mac-and-cheese).  This is such a nice comfort food, especially in bad weather.

I got this recipe from a little book called, I know this sounds crazy, Grits.  It’s a whole book of recipes using grits by Bill Neal, the chef who made Shrimp and Grits a southern staple at his wonderful restaurant, Crooks Corner, right here in our own Chapel Hill!  There are tons of yummy recipes I want to make from that cookbook, especially since grits are such a good side or base to a meal and are cheap!!!  The grits themselves are as cheap as arborio rice (for risotto) or cornmeal (for polenta) but unlike those, grits do not require chicken stock and cook in plain old tap water, so they are the cheapest of all cheap starches.  There is a recipe in there for a roasted chicken over grits that I will definitely be trying in the future, and will pass on if it’s as great as I think it will be!

In the mean time, set aside some time to make yourself some of these comforting cheese grits.  It doesn’t take long to fix them, but they truly are better when they cook slowly, longer.  They are creamier and thicker the longer you cook them.  Once they’ve cooked at a higher heat for 10 min or so with regular stirring, I put the lid on and put them on low heat so that they are just making slow gurgly bubbles, and let that cook away, stirring only every now and then.  I think mine usually end up cooking about half an hour, although the recipe below suggests 40 minutes.  I get impatient by then, but it probably would be even better!

Eat these plain out of a bowl; serve them for an easy breakfast with fruit (as we did this past weekend, see picture below); have on the side with biscuits, bacon or sausage and fruit for a no-holds-barred southern breakfast; or use as your base to Shrimp and Grits.  Bon Appetit, y’all! 🙂

Cheese Grits


1 cup stone-ground grits

4 cups water

½ teaspoon salt, or to taste

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

¼ teaspoon black pepper

Pinch or more of cayenne pepper

1 cup shredded cheddar cheese


1.    Bring 4 cups of water to a boil in a medium-sized saucepan.  Add the salt and slowly whisk in grits.  Cook at a low simmer, stirring frequently, until grits are done – they should be quite thick and creamy – about 30 to 40 minutes.

2.    Remove the grits from the heat and whisk in the remaining ingredients.  Serve hot!  Can be kept warm over a double-boiler on the stove up to 30 minutes.


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He and I, for the Superbowl

For various reasons, mostly due to Michael having schoolwork, we decided to stay in for the Superbowl and have our own cozy little feast.  I made our favorite ribs, which are EASY AS PIE and oh so fall-off-the-bone delicious, and some homemade mac-and-cheese.  Nothing like good old comfort food and football on a sunday night!

The mac and cheese is a longer discussion  so let me start with the ribs.  This recipe is from Cottage Living magazine, which I am devastated to say is now out of business because it was my favorite magazine.  Darn this economy!  Anyway, a local NC cook, Sara Foster, used to contribute frequently to the food section of the magazine, and her stuff was always great.  This recipe was from an issue that put her up against another local chef, Bill Smith of Crook’s Corner, to compare each of their signature summer bbq meals.  I liked the ribs from Crook’s Corner because it can all be cooked and finished in the stove, and until recently we did not have a grill.  (Michael got one for Christmas so watch out world, come spring time!!!).

So anyway, the ribs couldn’t be easier.  You slather the slab of baby backs with olive oil, salt and pepper and then place it on a cooling rack placed inside a sheet pan.  I pour a bottle of beer into the bottom, instead of water, and then wrap the whole tray up tightly in tin foil.  It then cooks for a few hours in the oven at which point it is literally falling off the bone!  Take it out and slather it with some BBQ sauce (any favorite of yours, either homemade or from a bottle) then finish them in the oven for a few minutes and presto!, you have gorgeous, sticky, falling of the bone ribs.  My husband LOVES these – this is one of those recipes that is the way to your man’s heart!

BBQ Pork Ribs (adapted from Bill Smith at Crooks Corner)


Makes 4 servings


*       2 1/2  pounds  (about 2 racks) baby back ribs

*       1/2  cup  olive oil

*       kosher salt, to taste

*       Freshly ground pepper, to taste

*       1 bottle of beer

*       Barbecue Sauce



1. Preheat oven to 350°. Drizzle both sides of ribs with oil; sprinkle with sea salt and pepper. Place on baking rack over rimmed baking sheet. Add the entire bottle of beer to the baking sheet, and cover tightly with foil. Roast 2 1/2 hours or until ribs are tender. (Meat should separate easily from bone.)

2. Remove ribs from oven, and let rest at least 20 minutes.

3. Preheat oven to 400°. Brush ribs on both sides with sauce, and place in shallow roasting pan. Add 1 cup sauce, and bake at 400° for 10 to 15 minutes or until sauce bubbles and thickens slightly. Serve with remaining sauce.

Now, for the mac and cheese, you can find the recipe I used here: http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/alton-brown/baked-macaroni-and-cheese-recipe/index.html.  It’s pretty good…but it’s not perfect.  And I am on a quest for the PERFECT mac and cheese recipe.  I have two other good ones – a really cheesy quick version from my friend Grace, and a really delicious and expensive and time-consuming one from Martha Stewart (this was the one I made for Thanksgiving).  I liked this version a lot for the consistency, which is tough to get right, but I didn’t love the mustard powder in it, which I thought was too strong, and I would have liked some other cheeses besides cheddar.  So I’m still looking for the recipe that combines the richness and flavor of the Martha Stewart recipe with the good consistency of the other two.  What I think I might have to do is just develop my own recipe.  And the starting point very well might be this one that I made this weekend.  I would recommend (because this is the way I’ll make it next time) cutting the mustard powder and using some other cheeses in addition to the white cheddar (some Emmantaler and Parmesan, maybe?). 
Aside from those finicky complaints of a mac-and-cheese snob, it’s a good recipe that is nice and tender underneath with a cheesy and crunchy (from the breadcrumbs) topping.  And it sure goes down well with some ribs and a beer, not to mention the Superbowl!
If you’ve got a winner Mac-and-Cheese recipe out there, please feel free to send it my way!!!

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Do-good Bananas

I’m one of those weird people who like green bananas.  Not completely green, but with streaks of green so that they are still quite firm and not too sweet.  Once they’ve got the first trace of a brown spot, I can’t eat them.  If a bunch of bananas ever gets to that point too quickly without being eaten, I get excited about making banana bread.

My dad taught us that the brown bananas are perfect for banana splits, although I remember thinking that was a suspicious argument (nearly as suspicious as the attestation that unlabeled can goods retrieved from the grocery store dump were exciting to open and good for us.  Yes, that happened.)  But it turns out he was quite right, as everyone always recommends the brown bananas for baking or other banana desserts.

Even if we have no need for a whole loaf of banana bread at the time they are on their way out, these bananas can still be very useful.  The bread is easy to mix up and the loaf can then be frozen and thawed when needed.  [Wrap the completely cooled loaf in foil and then place in a large plastic freezer bag with as much air as possible removed.]  But it also makes a great give-away treat.  Recently, I needed to use up some bananas and we certainly didn’t need more carbs/sweets than we’ve already got around here with the holidays.  We do, however, have some friends who have been spending much too much time at the hospital for a very sad reason, and those browning bananas were the perfect excuse to send a little package of home-cooked comfort their way.

I think most people already have a good banana bread recipe they like, and I’m not going to say this one is the BEST necessarily, but it’s very tasty and my new favorite.  I had another recipe I made for years and years that was also very good, and I have a great recipe for Chocolate Banana Bread from my friend Melissa.  This one is from a small paper-bound booklet of recipes from the fabulous Hominy Grill restaurant in Charleston, SC, where we once ate two days in a row we liked it so much!  I find it’s a little sweeter and the addition of the oats is also quite delicious.  I’ve added cinnamon as well for a bit more flavor.  It’s extremely easy to double this recipe, if you have enough bananas.  I particularly recommend this be eaten toasted and then spread with either butter or cream cheese.  YUM!  Spread the love. 🙂

Banana Bread (adapted from Hominy Grill Recipes)


1 ½ cups all-purpose flour, sifted

2 tsp double-acting baking powder

½ tsp baking soda

½ tsp salt

½ tsp cinnamon

4 Tbs unsalted butter, softened

½ cup brown sugar

1 tsp vanilla extract

1 egg

¾ cup whole oats

1 ½ cups mashed, very ripe bananas (3-4 medium)

2 Tbs water

Plain breadcrumbs or flour to dust the pan


Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Grease a 10-inch bread pan, dust with breadcrumbs (or flour, if breadcrumbs are not readily available) and set aside.


In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.  Set aside.


In a large bowl, beat the butter until creamy, about 30 seconds.  Add the sugar and the vanilla and beat until well mixed.  Add the egg and continue beating until fluffy and pale in color.  Add oats, mashed banana, water and beat until smooth.  Add the dry ingredients and beat until just combined.


Scrape the batter into the pan and bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 55 minutes.


Cool pan on rack 5-10 minutes before removing loaf.  Let loaf cool completely on rack.



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You are going to LOVE this recipe.  Love, love, love.  It starts by cooking bacon and by the end it has brandy, red wine and butter in it.  So you can see already that I am right about how much you’re going to love it.

I first made this Beef Bourguignon recipe about two years ago.  I remember it was two years ago because Michael and I hadn’t been married very long, it was the fall, and it was a holiday (I think Veterans Day) and like a good newlywed I wanted to make my sweet husband something really delicious on my day off while he had to work.  I was still working through my first Barefoot Contessa cookbook, Barefoot in Paris (those were the days when I planned to buy one cookbook at a time and cook fully through it before moving onto another food genre – those days are looooong gone and I’m now compulsively cooking through about ten at a time).  I was recovering from being engaged, a period of five months during which I attended five out of state weddings, planned a week-long conference for 90 people in India (from DC) and went to Delhi for two weeks, went on vacation for a week with my family, lived with my parents for 2 months, moved twice – and barely, BARELY cooked.  Which killed me.  I missed it terribly and was cooking up a storm in my tiny doll-house kitchen in our new apartment when we got back from our honeymoon.  Michael and I were so happy to not be wedding planning that we ate cozy comfort food, kept up our french-honeymoon-habit of drinking a bottle of wine with each meal, hung out and watched TV and were generally lazy for 5 months to make up for the 5 months of insanity.

I tell you all that just to set the scene for the first magical time we tasted this recipe from HEAVEN.  No one else really gets Veterans Day off so I had the whole day to work on this meal.  It’s a bit of a process but oh what a pleasure the whole process is!  As I mentioned, you start by cooking half a package of bacon in some oil.  Once it’s nice and brown you pull it out and brown your beef in all the nice fat and oil left in the pot.  Once the beef is nice and brown you pull it out and cook your onions, garlic and carrots in all the nice fat and oil and beef juices left in the pot.  THEN, you pour cognac/brandy over the pot and LIGHT IT ON FIRE.  All this really does is burn off the alcohol from the cognac, but the moment when the flames come leaping from your pot seems so much more than that…you have the smell of bacon, beef, onions, garlic and brandy all wafting under your nose and you just can’t WAIT to eat this meal, but wait you must because we are not done yet!  Once the fire has died out you add beef stock and a bottle of red wine and then you slam the whole covered pot into the oven for 75 minutes, until everything is bubbly and soft and perfect.  At the very end you add sauteed mushrooms and serve it over chunky bread.  

Your end result is a beef-stew type dish that is perfectly cooked in a very, very complex sauce developed from those layers of flavor that you meticulously browned.  The wine and fats and juices all meld into a really flavorful broth that you just want to lick up with your fingers.  And although it does take a little while to complete the steps and to cook, it is totally worth it.   I think you should all try this recipe the next time you have a free Sunday afternoon, and after you’ve cooked through it once you’ll move much quicker the next time and can try it for company.  I promise you, you’ll knock their socks off.  And in more good news, it keeps really well (and is actually one of those dishes that’s almost better the second night) so you could make it ahead and throw it in the fridge to serve the next night without being rushed.  Your guests will feel like kings and queens.  Trust me, husbands at least do. 🙂  This has been Michael’s favorite dinner since his first bite.

I’ll put the link to the Barefoot Contessa’s recipe here, but please note there is one major difference in the way I prepare it: she calls for whole frozen baby onions to be added at the end, and we didn’t love these – they just didn’t have a lot of flavor.  I prefer to throw in halved creamy fingerling potatoes with the whole mixture before it goes in the oven.  They come out perfectly cooked and pick up the sauce really well.  I also add a little herbes de provence to up the frenchy flavor a bit, and I use dried thyme instead of fresh just because it’s cheaper – if you happen to have fresh thyme, by all means use that.  http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/ina-garten/beef-bourguignon-recipe/index.html

Make this soon and make it often, my friends.  You won’t regret it!  Bon Appetit!!!


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The Taste of Fall

Nothing says “Fall!” more than the taste of apples.  As soon as there’s a bit of frost on the ground and it’s football and sweatshirt weather, I crave crunchy, sweet apples to fill up my fruit bowl.  And nothing could be better than apples blended with all those yummy fall spices that we love in our pumpkin pies and cider.  Applesauce is the perfect marriage of all these seasonal flavors and it could not be any easier to make on your own at home!  It’s great as a snack, breakfast, dessert or even heated as a side with dinner (applesauce has a great affinity for pork).  I made up a batch last night and if it lasts til the weekend, I’ll have it on hand for our friends who are visiting as an easy breakfast side that doesn’t require any last-minute cooking.  (Can’t wait to see you guys, J and K!!!)

I took a basic recipe from epicurious.com (a great recipe resource) and added my own spices because I like a lot of flavor.  You could easily change the amounts or type of spices (I added ginger and cardamom to cut the sweetness of the other spices but some people may not have these on hand) as well as the type of apple (I chose a mix of tangy Granny Smith apples and sweet Jonagold).  Have fun with it!

Sweet and Spicy Applesauce

6 lbs of apples (about 10 large apples)

1 cup sugar

1 cup water

¾ cup fresh lemon juice (about 4 lemons)

1 tsp ground cinnamon

½ tsp ground allspice

½ tsp ground cloves

¼ tsp ginger

¼ tsp cardamom


1. Peel and core apples and cut into large wedges

2. Place all ingredients in a large pot and bring to a boil over medium-high heat

3. Reduce heat to medium and cover; simmer until apples are soft, stirring occasionally, for about 45 minutes.  Continue to break up large chunks until desired consistency is reached

4. Serve hot or cool and refrigerate

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I’ve been excited about making spaghetti and meatballs sauce for a few days, because I was planning to make my sauce in the slow cooker.  My mom never used a slow cooker so I’m new to this technique, and have been experimenting with it for the past year or so.  I thought this would be a great way to make tomato sauce since ‘real’ Italian tomato sauce/ragu is supposed to cook slowly for hours and hours.  I cooked mine for 6 hours today and I think I’m sold on this new method!  I think it could have cooked even longer – actually, the remainder is still bubbling away – and only get better. 

I don’t follow a specific recipe for tomato sauce; my mom uses my Aunt Sarah’s recipe which is basically sauteed onions and garlic,  mixed with spices, tomato sauce and tomato paste.  I start with that base and then throw in anything interesting from the fridge or spices that sound good to me that day.  I put a LOT of spices in this one – dried basil, oregano, thyme and herbes de provence, plus chopped fresh basil and parsley (leftovers I had on hand).  I seasoned it generously with salt, pepper and sugar (sugar breaks down the acid in tomatoes).  In fact, I overseasoned it with all those spices, because although it made the house smell delish, it knocked me over when I lifted the lid.  At hour 4 I added more crushed tomatoes and tomato paste to diffuse all that flavor and thicken it up.  The finished product at hour 6 had a great thick consistency.  It tasted just a bit too acidic, I thought, so I think I’ll add a little more sugar next time the next time.

The meatballs, however, were glorious.  I threw seasoned breadcrumbs, an egg and parmesan cheese in with the ground beef and then fried them in olive oil and finished them in the oven for about 10 minutes.  They had a crisp and flavorful crust and made the whole meal.  Yummy!

Slow-cooked Spaghetti and Meatballs

So the final verdict is that the slow cooker is a great way to get a deeper flavor in your tomato sauce, but make sure you add enough sugar to break down the acid and get your spice/tomato balance right from the beginning so it can all cook together the whole 6-8 hours (I’m going for 8 next time…).  It’s worth that extra time – I can’t think of anything cozier than a steaming plate of spaghetti and meatballs on a chilly fall night! 
PS: After adding some sugar and letting the remainder of the sauce cook an additional couple hours after we ate, it mellowed out into a darker, smoother, thicker sauce with a very deep and complex smell and flavor.  8 hours is the way to go, and I don’t think I’ll ever make sauce in a pot again!

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