Prepare the cornbread. This may be done several days in advance. Preheat the oven to 450˚F with a 9-inch cast iron skillet inside. Add to the skillet and allow to liquefy:
Cold snap. A time for building fires and settling into sweaters, long books, hot toddies. A time for pulling out the things you started but were too busy to finish. A time for seed catalogues and their poetry of impending spring. We pause, even if we have almost forgotten how to, and take stock.
Out here, when the sky bears down on the mountains, there's really nothing to do but hunker down and try to enjoy the lull. Usually, since it is our occupation, we simply spend more time in the kitchen, catching up on recipes we've been wanting to try or developing new recipes that have weighed on our minds. But it's also an occasion for the best comfort food has to offer.
Comfort food is an interesting concept, as it usually evokes thoughts of rich dishes--macaroni and cheese, chicken pot pies--but comfort food, to me, is really anything that warms to the core. Anything that satisfies after a cold walk or a long day or even just a disappointing series of events. I think we all know it's not healthy to attempt to eat away our frustrations, but comfort food is more than that. It's the sort of medicine that chips away at pretense or façade and allows us to be human again.
My usual cold-weather fare involves ginger and molasses cookies, miso soup, and as much peppermint tea as I can stomach. These foods are nourishing, but more than that, they evoke memories. The cookies remind me of my mother, who taught me to make them. My miso soup habit was given me by a dear friend, and it's still where I turn when I'm too tired to make a full-fledged supper. The peppermint tea is my own time-tested balm against weariness and cold.
But who says we can't embrace new comfort foods and make new memories with them? The traditions of others can be equally satisfying, and sometimes, although we may hate to admit it, memory can be an impediment to enjoyment. One of my new favorite comfort foods, and one that is just as frugal as it is remarkable, is pasta and beans, or pasta e fagioli.
Peasant food really doesn't get any better, and even though pairing pasta and beans doesn't sound like a winner, this dish is one of my favorite JOY recipes. The stock and starchy beans and pasta combine to make a thick, flavorful dish punctuated by the pungent bite of Romano. The recipe calls for elbow macaroni, but we've used various shapes in this dish, and they all seem to benefit immensely from an association with beans--cavatappi (corkscrew-shaped pasta) is my personal favorite.
This is the best sort of one-dish food, and it's quick into the bargain. Although the dish is vegetarian, the meat-eaters in your life will probably not miss it at all. If, however, you think it would sweeten the pot, sauté a little chopped bacon or pancetta before adding the mirepoix (onion, carrot, and celery). I also like to add some red pepper flake to this dish, as the gentle heat it gives is even more warming.
Heat in a large saucepan over medium heat:
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Add and cook, stirring, until the onion is golden brown, about 5 minutes:
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 carrot, finely chopped
1 celery rib with leaves, finely chopped
2 tablespoons minced parsley
(1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes)
2 large garlic cloves, minced
Cook for 1 minute, then add:
Two 15½-ounce cans cannellini or Great Northern beans, rinsed and drained
Partially mash the beans with the back of a spoon. Add:
2 cups chicken or vegetable stock or broth, or as needed
Bring to a simmer, partially cover, reduce the heat, and simmer for 5 minutes. Stir in:
1 cup elbow macaroni or 8 ounces of another pasta shape
Salt to taste
Cook until the pasta is tender, about 15 minutes. Thin the sauce, if needed, with additional stock or water. Season to taste with:
Just before serving, stir in:
¼ cup grated Romano (2 ounces)
Ladle into bowls and serve, passing:
Additional grated cheese