the comfort food edition

on being lonely

I turn to comfort food the most when it's cold outside. Specifically, mid-January, in that lull between Christmas and Valentine's Day, when I haven't seen the sun in weeks and my seasonal affective is in full swing. That's when my oven is running 24/7 to churn out high-carb and high-fat creations.

We're not in that period right now. In fact, we're in the literal opposite of it. Brooklyn just wrapped up a two-week heat wave and the sun is beating down on the makeshift container garden I've built. I've been painting, doing yoga, writing a bunch of jokes, walking along the river, and reading more than I've read since childhood. And yet... all I'm craving (and making) is comfort food.

It's probably due in large part to the fact that the pandemic is showing no signs of stopping, and as a result, I haven't seen close friends in months. I've entirely forgotten what it means to eat at a restaurant, to go to a movie theater, to watch or perform live comedy. I've had all this time to "work on myself" and focus on my interests, but the truth is, I've never felt sadder.

I've been able to combat this sadness through retail (food) therapy, at least in part. I recently got a shipment of live oysters from my favorite oyster farm in Maine and shucked them before pouring a large glass of Txakoli and transporting myself to a coastal village that only exists in my imagination. I'm anxiously awaiting my spice trio from Diaspora Co. (a Bay Area queer South Asian spice company) so I can finally make some Indian food in my tiny corner kitchen. I've found a wine shop nearby that'll deliver six-packs of natural wine, and I've started buying my coffee beans from a local roaster.

But all of this only does so much to assuage my loneliness. Studies, mostly anecdotal but some scientific, say that we turn to comfort food for the psychological safety it provides, and my experience these past few months has been entirely in line with that theory. My primary joy used to be spending time with others, and I no longer have that. The digital landscape just isn’t working for me.

I’ll be sharing a few of the recipes that have been getting me through this period of sadness — two that are already vegan, and one that could easily be made vegan — in the hopes that they bring you some joy as well.

Before we dive into them, some recommendations (as always):

READ

  • This deep-dive into South India’s missing vegetables, and Akash Muralidharan’s quest to find them. After reading, I was filled with a deep sense of longing for these extinct items, and I can’t help but wonder what other cultivated produce has been lost to capitalism and big agriculture. What are we on track to lose next?

  • Learn about the decolonization of North American Indigenous cuisine, what “survival staples” are and where they came from, and what Chef Brian Yazzie is doing to rebuild the concept of Indigenous cuisine.

  • Bettina Makalintal on the importance of names, and who really benefits when a dish’s name is Anglicized (hint: it’s not the people of color).

  • A book by a Black author — this Twitter user made a bot that’ll recommend a book written by a Black author based on genre.

LISTEN

WATCH

  • Plus One on Hulu. While Palm Springs is (rightfully) getting a lot of attention for being an Andy Samberg Groundhog Day rom-com, I think Plus One is just as lovely in its own right.

THIS TIME: COMFORT FOOD

Before we dive into these recipes, a quick note that some of these recipes are adapted. I've always had complicated feelings about adapted recipes. Was the original not good enough? What has the adapter done to make it their own? At what point is an adapted recipe actually just a new recipe?

I don't pretend to have the answers, but in lieu of those, I do have a few recipes that I've tweaked slightly (perhaps… adapted?) to accommodate my own dietary needs/preferences.

REALLY DARN CRISPY POTATOES

Those crispy exteriors! These are my favorite potatoes of all time.

These potatoes are a labor of love. I always thought potatoes were an easy dish — a root vegetable you could boil, bake, mash, fry, and turn into a dependable and filling side. These potatoes, while not so easy, put all others to shame. Sure, they require a boil AND a roast, and yes, they take an hour to come together, but we have plenty of time in this pandemic as it is.

J. Kenji López-Alt, the mastermind behind these potatoes, is a James Beard Award winner, MIT graduate, and NYT Bestselling Author for The Food Lab — a cookbook I recommend to anyone curious about the science behind cooking. The recipe below is his but adapted to accommodate a vegan (and slightly more hands-off) approach in the kitchen. The crisp on the outside comes from building a “dehydrated layer of gelatinized starch on the exterior” (his words), or in simpler terms, getting a layer of potato mush to coat the outside (my words).

Ingredients

3 lbs potatoes (any kind, really), scrubbed and cut into 1” chunks
2 tbsp salt + 2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
5 tbsp olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced

Directions

1. Bring a large pot of water to boil, then add in baking soda, 2 tbsp salt, and potato chunks. Reduce heat slightly, and allow to cook until a knife can pierce a potato chunk through.
2. Drain the potatoes, then rest them in the pot for about a minute to allow excess water to evaporate. In the meantime, preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.
3. Drizzle in 3 tbsp olive oil and 2 tsp salt, then toss to coat. Continue to toss and shake the bowl roughly throughout, until a thick layer of potato mush has built up on the outside of the potato chunks. Feel free to nibble on some potato mush at this point — for science, of course.
4. Spread potatoes on a large baking sheet, and roast for 20 minutes undisturbed. Remove from heat, flip them over, then return to oven for an additional 20-30 minutes.
5. Sauté garlic in olive oil until aromatic, then remove from heat. Once potatoes are done, remove from oven and toss in the garlic-olive oil mixture with salt to taste. If you have parsley or other herbs you’d like to add in (rosemary, chives, etc.), now’s the time.

VEGAN CHOCOLATE CAKE (!!)

Samin Nosrat, icon, legend, etc., has a recipe in Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat for a chocolate cake — specifically, “Lori’s Chocolate Midnight Cake”. Unfortunately, said chocolate cake contains eggs and slightly more sugar than I’d like. The recipe below is modified from Nosrat’s to accommodate the vegan requirement and to ever so slightly cut down on the sugar content.

I’ve made this cake twice in two weeks (and I hate repetition so you know this is a good cake), and it holds up equally well with a dusting of powdered sugar as it does with buttercream frosting. I like to bake mine in an 8”x8” square metal pan, though a round 8” would work equally well.

Ingredients

1/4 cup cocoa powder
1/2 cup + 3 tbsp-ish sugar
1 tsp salt
3/4 cup + 2 tbsp-ish flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 cup canola oil (or vegetable, grapeseed, etc.)
3/4 cup freshly brewed hot coffee
1/4 cup sparkling water, seltzer, etc.*

*Note: Any kind of carbonated water will work well for this, provided it’s been recently opened. If you’re avoiding caffeine, you can sub hot water for the coffee, but the addition of coffee helps enhance the flavor of the chocolate (and won’t make your cake taste like coffee, I promise).

Directions

1. Line your pan with parchment paper, then grease and dust with flour. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
2. In a large bowl, stir together the cocoa, sugar, salt, flour, and baking soda. If you want bonus points, you can sift the mixture, but I won’t keep track.
3. In a separate bowl, combine vanilla extract and oil. Stir in hot coffee. It will not look cute. That’s okay.
4. Gradually add vanilla-oil-coffee mixture into the dry ingredients, stirring until combined. Stir in sparkling water. At this point, you can taste the batter (no eggs!) and it should taste pretty darn good.
5. Pour your batter into the prepared pan and bake until a knife inserted comes out clean and the edges are beginning to pull away from the edges of the pan (about 25 minutes).
6. Cool the cake before diving in. Serve with a dusting of powdered sugar, some strawberries, whipped cream, buttercream… it’s your call.

GARLIC KNOTS

Okay, this recipe is mine, and it’s also not vegan. But I miss being able to walk into a pizzeria, order two slices of plain, and get a side of garlic knots because they look good. If you’re like me, you’ve always got a little extra pizza dough hanging out in the freezer — a slow-ferment dough recipe is coming your way next time — and these knots are a great way to use up some dough.

I made these right before my partner and I did laundry for the week, thinking we’d eat them with dinner. We kept grabbing “one for the road” until the bowl was empty. None were left for dinner. That’s how good these are.

Ingredients

2 cups pizza dough
2 tbsp butter
2 tsp granulated garlic (4 tsp minced garlic, if you’re going for a fresher vibe)
1-2 tsp parsley
1/2 tsp salt

Directions

1. Once the pizza dough has risen, roll it out into a long skinny rope (about an inch thick). Using a sharp knife, slice it into pieces every two inches or so. Those pieces are what’ll eventually become your knots.
2. Take one of the pieces you sliced, then roll it between your hands into a smaller skinny rope. It’ll be about four inches long, and half an inch thick. Tie a knot (an overhand knot, to be precise) from the dough, then tuck both dough ends into the knot wherever you can find space. Repeat with remaining dough pieces. Allow to rest for 30-45 minutes on a baking sheet, about two inches apart.
3. Melt the butter, then stir in garlic, parsley, and salt. Drizzle butter mixture over dough knots, but save some for later.
4. Bake at 350 degrees F for 20 minutes, then remove from heat. Toss the knots with the remaining butter mixture, then return to the oven for 5 minutes.
5. Remove from heat (for real this time) and toss again in the butter bowl. Serve immediately, sprinkling with some flaky Maldon salt for texture.

That’s all for this issue! I’ll see you next time with the slow-ferment dough I promised.

Ashni

P.S. A special thanks to my food photographer partner for the photos in this issue <3 If you’ve noticed that they’re significantly higher quality than the photos of past newsletters, it’s all thanks to them.