in defense of marginally sexy food…

….the rehabilitation of “creamy” rice and beef stew.

I never liked risotto. I just didn’t get it. Growing up in the South it wasn’t really a featured menu item and I didn’t have an Italian grandmother with a secret family recipe to pass down. We ate long-grained white rice, noodles, hominy and mashed potatoes, but very little in between. But mostly we had rice, and while sometimes it was red, it was never “creamy.” As a little girl running around downtown Savannah all day without a cell phone, the only way I knew supper was ready was a waft of burnt rice drifting down the lane. She always nailed it the second time around.

This is not an indictment of my upbringing, merely the reality of a 1970s regional childhood. As such my formal introduction to risotto, which was coincidentally right after my very first bagel, came as a colorless plop of gluey rice in a New Jersey college dining hall. It didn’t stand a chance.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, beef stews were far more familiar, although I’m reasonably certain I’ve never uttered the words “you know, what this girl really wants for dinner tonight is a nice, plain pot roast.” To be fair, it was always tasty enough, and no doubt plentiful, but stewed beef was never more than another ubiquitous entry in the monthly dinner rotation. And in practice it bore little resemblance to Boeuf Bourguignon; it was not adventurous, it was not special and it was definitely not sexy.

Now jump to 2021, and after going full-on home chef for over a year, I couldn’t continue to outdo myself night after night with silly competitions and exotic one-offs. It was exhausting and getting to be expensive. So I needed to get back to basics and reimagine those hearty meals I’d pooh-poohed because I’d always found them:

  1. obscure, bland & gross…like instant risotto
  2. common, bland & boring…like beef stew

So…bland. What we were really talking about was bland comfort foods. The risk-taker in me cried “fix it with fusion! Where’s the sriracha? What if I sneaked in some anchovies or tahini?” But that would simply be window dressing and not an authentic solution. Plus, the only thing worse than bland food is yucky food. But the bigger question was why in the world did I think that it was up to me to fix anything? There’s that hubris again. So I began instead to hunt for clues to figure out how, when and why traditionally straightforward, wholesome dishes were reduced to tasteless and unimaginative fillers for the American dinner table.

There is a mystery to be solved: Why did American women abandon the joys of Mary Lincoln, Maria Parloa and Mary Cornelius and take to their hearts a cookery book that never talks of taste, of texture, of quality of produce? Whatever the answer, the American diet today is poorer for it.

Still the Bible of the American Kitchen, The New York Times, 1973

That was written in 1973 – they knew there was a problem then. By no means do I accuse Fannie Farmer, but a lot can be inferred from this big change in American home cooking. Blandness also shows up in my library of cookbooks published in the 1960s and 70s by various service organizations, but evidently co-sponsored by Campbell’s cream of anything soup. I’m not suggesting we all grew up on crappy food 7 nights a week and in fact Mother and Daddy baked, broiled and braised nearly every recipe in Through Europe with a Jug of Wine. I also credit them for my love of authentic Indian, Cuban and Thai flavors, raw oysters, ripe Roquefort and of course, broccoli.

I would only suggest that historically home-cooked dishes, while uncomplicated by fanfare, offer an exquisite but nuanced experience, something that was railroaded by the shortcuts and canned conveniences of the 20th century. Of course risotto and Boeuf Bourguignon were not lost treasures, but they had been poorly cloned into to bland fodder for the weeknight dinner table. So the assignment took shape: honor origins, concentrate on method, gather fresh ingredients and invest my time intently.

culprits and bibles

The risotto challenge was alarmingly and embarrassingly easy – the recipe is forthright and solid, so trust it. The only tricky part is babysitting with a full ladle and chaining yourself to the stove. Finely minced shallots, good chicken stock and freshly grated cheese create the layered flavors, but summoning patience makes all that effort deliciously therapeutic.

As for the Boeuf Bourguignon, Julia’s version is certainly legendary and carries with it the embedded rituals of her style, technique and wit. For as many times as I’ve been caught mid-Swedish Chef routine, I “do” Julia more often, complete with her brutal honesty and uncensored blunders. This recipe works for me because of its methodical stacking of tastes and textures, making it not so much art, but craft. Every time I have it I am genuinely surprised and delighted. Every time.

There are periods in our lives when we surrender and simply strap on the feed bag. Life can happen harshly and unexpectedly, the resulting stress is relentless and easy-button bland is what we have to offer. I’ve been there. But my third quarter victory lap was interrupted by a global crisis so I sought refuge, or more accurately, revenge in the kitchen. Don’t think for a second I’m not aware of the privilege and folly that this little blog represents – there are more than a few reasons we should be thankful for every meal, from the bland to the exquisite.

On our last visit down to the mothership, Daddy proudly made a succulent and savory beef stew that took two days to prepare and may have even spent a little of that time refrigerated. Point is, it kept him out of trouble for 48 hours, was off-the-charts delicious and nobody got sick. So if you can steal a block of free time to invest in one single dish each week, a thoughtful and carefully crafted comfort meal might surprise even your worst critic. Savor the process, stay out of trouble, celebrate the meal.

cheat sheet

  • Assemble and measure out your ingredients before you begin. This is especially helpful with these two recipes – they are not difficult, but it’s a dance and you need to keep the beat.
  • For the risotto, hunt down actual Arborio rice – it is now stocked at my local Walmart, so there’s that.
  • Along those lines, shallots are now everywhere but an onion will suffice for the risotto in a pinch.
  • Everyday Pinot, Cab and Shiraz all work fine for the Boeuf Bourguignon. A nice Burgundy to drink with your dinner is another story. You are going to a lot of trouble to make this dish so govern yourself accordingly.
  • There are many cuts of beef that work from nicely-marbled chuck (my choice) to featherblade or brisket.

more hot and hearty:

One thought on “in defense of marginally sexy food…

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