Burned by taxes? Chill out with cool comfort
By Jody Stump
After millions of years of seasonal wanderings, humans had barely settled down before the first taxes were levied. Imagine the first farmer’s dismay when he harvested a field of barley and found he’d have to pay an extra bushel to the town shaman for propitiating the gods.
Sumerians turned taxation into an art form, inventing writing so their scribes could record the season’s tax bounty. It took two vats of wine or eight jars of wheat to pay the taxes on a humble house in Babylon. And how did those Babylonians ease the pain of payment? Well, some probably drowned their sorrows in the aforementioned wine, but for many, the dish that healed all ills was a rich, buttery stew of grains spiced with savory herbs and splashed with yet more wine. It even soothed the sorrows of history’s wealthiest tax gatherer as archeologists discovered when they raided Midas’ grave-a lentil casserole well enough preserved to reformulate the recipe. The dish fit for a king looks a lot like risotto to me.
More a matter of process than produce, what makes these stews so special is the alchemical Zen of stirring a pot. I learned how as a mop-headed child barely old enough to hold the wooden spoon. Wobbling on an old stool, I helped my mother push the stubby pellets of rice around in the pan until they crackled, soaking up hot oil and butter. A dash of wine and the scents that waft up are still a pungent reminder of childhood’s happy days. Whenever I feel the burdens of a grown-up life, I return to risotto.
Making risotto is child’s play- it’s all in the wrist. Here’s the classic beginner’s recipe, but the technique can be adapted to include almost anything edible. The rules are simple:
– Aromatics (onions, garlic, leeks) are sauted first, followed by rice
– Wine is optional, but it goes in before any other liquid
– Cooking liquids (broth, water or cooking juices) should be warm
– Toss in seafood, chicken, cheese and/or cooked vegetables just before serving and you have, indeed, a dish fit for a king.
1 onion, minced
1 stick sweet butter
2 cups Arborio rice
1/2 cup white wine
6 cups chicken broth, simmering
1/2 tsp. saffron
1 cup grated Parmesan
1. In a large, heavy skillet, saut the onion in 2 tbsp. butter until translucent and barely golden.
2. Stir in the rice and cook over medium heat until it stops clicking-about 3 minutes. It should be lightly toasted and almost pearly. Add the wine and stir until absorbed.
3. Add the saffron. Stir in a cup of broth and bring the liquid to a simmer.
4. Here’s the trick-stir frequently but not constantly, just enough for the rice to continue absorbing the broth without sticking. Add another cup whenever the bottom of the pan is almost dry. After five cups, start nibbling and stop when the texture is al dente.
5. Remove from heat and add the cheese and the rest of the butter. Season with freshly ground pepper. Add a little more broth to reach the consistency you like-anything from “sticky rice” to almost soupy.
For Midas’ version, substitute soaked lentils for the rice and lamb stock for the broth. Add fennel to the onions and season with cumin, thyme and cayenne. Garnish with chopped watercress-and serve with beer in a ram’s horn:
For sweet comfort, I was led to this discovery at a local potluck party. A friend grabbed me, saying, “You won’t believe the cake! I died and went to heaven!” Thinking of Midas’ send-off, I’m offering another perfect “comfort food.” Chef’s toque-off to Lore Klein for a wonderful chocolate cake.
LA COSTA COMFORT CAKE
Recipe from Lore Klein
1 package dark chocolate cake mix
1 small package chocolate fudge instant pudding mix
1 cup sour cream
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup warm water
1 small package semi-sweet chocolate chips
1. 325-degree oven.
2. Butter and flour in a large rectangular pan or see directions on cake package.
3. Blend ingredients for 30 seconds, and then beat on high for 2 minutes.
4. Pour batter into prepared pan and bake 50 – 60 minutes.
5. Cool before icing.
Cream Cheese Frosting
8 oz. package cream cheese
3/4 stick sweet butter, softened
1/2 box + confectioners sugar
2 tsp. vanilla
Mix well and frost cooled cake.
TIPS FOR THE TABLE: I ran into Granita’s chef, Jennifer Naylor, at the post office and asked what was on tap for this month’s cooking class. It’s a Spring-fest of artichokes and lamb. With my first crop of artichokes just ripe for picking, I’ll be there April 25. Call for reservations: 456-0488. And, if you’re too chicken to try making your own risotto, try Allegria’s excellent seafood version.