As I write this, it’s Election Day and, depending on the outcome, we might all need a little comfort food this week. When the days are dreary, stress is heavy, and everything looks bleak, sometimes the best way to mother oneself is to cook up a pot of sustenance that warms the house and sends odor plumes wafting out the door. Of course exercise, fresh air, hobbies, cuddles with pets or kids, wine, and outings with friends are all great for stress relief. Food certainly isn’t the solution to all woes. But a nice meal doesn’t hurt.
I survived the last few difficult years of graduate school in part because of family-style dinners with my housemates. On weeknights, we’d take turns cooking and cleaning up dinner. I enjoyed cooking for my friends, but what was most soothing was to arrive home on a cold, rainy evening after a frustrating day and smell a pot of soup that someone else had prepared. Five of us would sit down together around a big round table and take a break from everything to enjoy good food, an occasional bottle of wine, and conversation.
Although I find comfort in the food I’ve prepared myself, ideally it’s nice when someone else does all the work. My husband has some spectacular comfort specialties, although because they involve lots of butter and homemade pastry, they’re perhaps better described as guilty pleasures. Sometimes I can pretend that someone else has cooked for me if I have meals tucked away in the freezer. Perhaps it’s the primordial hoarder in me, but it’s tremendously satisfying to know there are dinners ready to go for those difficult days.
My mother-in-law’s meaty spaghetti sauce is something I always try to keep in reserve. I’ve sent jars of this savory comfort to friends who’ve needed easy nourishment in times of grief, illness, or joy, such as after the birth of a baby. It’s my most requested recipe, yet it’s embarrassingly inelegant and simple. My husband’s mother clipped the recipe out of a magazine sometime in the early 80’s, before sodium-consciousness, health food, and foodie-ism went mainstream. I was served this spaghetti on my first visit to my in-laws’ home, just after my husband and I were engaged. Because I was vegetarian at the time, I turned my nose up at the sauce and asked for plain pasta. However, I was marrying a guy from cattle country and I soon learned to be flexible in my eating habits. The sauce grew on me. When we asked my mother-in-law for a jar for an easy dinner on a camping trip, she knew she’d won me over. The sauce is exceptionally good when eaten around a campfire. We’ve tried a meatless version, but it’s just not as good. To assuage any latent vegetarian guilt I still carry, we buy “happy” beef from a rancher whose steers graze freely on the range. And of course, a nice bottle of red is great with this. Here’s to comfort food.
Mum’s Meaty Spaghetti Sauce (approx. 10 servings)
1½ lbs lean ground beef
½ cup chopped onion
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 Tbsp sugar
1 Tbsp salt
1½ tsp dried basil
¼ tsp pepper
2 large (28 oz) cans diced tomatoes
2 cans (6 oz) tomato paste
In a large stockpot or Dutch oven, brown beef, onion, and garlic. Add sugar, salt, basil, and pepper, sautéing just until fragrant. Add tomatoes and paste. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer gently, 1½ hours, stirring occasionally. Serve with favorite pasta. Tastes even better the next day, and freezes beautifully.