For heathens (or hedonists) like me, Sunday consists not of rest and religious services but of food and flea markets. At Isabella’s on Columbus and W. 77th I worship the concept of brunch, that wonderful meal offering me the options of both breakfast and lunch. As an added bonus, Isabella’s brunch comes with a complimentary Bloody Mary, Bellini, Campari, mimosa or glass of champagne and a basket of raisin-fennel and carrot breads. Is it any wonder why I bound out of bed?
Suffering from a terrible sweet tooth, I usually order the carmelized banana-stuffed French toast. Topped with strawberries macerated in Grand Marnier sauce, it’s both decadent and ever so slightly good for me. (Just remember, whether sauteed in sugar and butter or soaked in orange liqueur, it’s still fruit. Or so I keep telling myself.) On mornings when I’m hankering a cholesterol boost, I opt for Isabella’s smoked salmon Benedict on a buttermilk biscuit with a side of home fries. And, on those rare Sundays when I’m feeling a tad health conscious, I order the seasonal fruit plate.
After brunch it’s across the street to the temple of quirky consumption, GreenFlea. Looking for bronze Buddha, 19th century doorknob, pint of half sours or a sweater from Ecuador? Greenflea’s got them all and so much more. With proceeds going to the local school I can splurge on that vintage Clash t-shirt and still head home feeling relatively guilt-free.
Day after day I read the newspaper, listen to NPR and watch the news and feel surprisingly fortunate. Granted, most of the publications for which I write have declared bankruptcy and my monthly financial statements have become the butt of sad jokes. Yet, to paraphrase the Republican party of the 1920′s, I still have ‘a chicken in the pot and a car in the backyard, to boot. ’
Where I notice this economic downturn is in the kitchen. It’s not how often I cook but what I cook that differs. Gone are the big, time consuming dinners featuring exotic ingredients found only at gourmet and specialty shops. Instead I now make simpler, more comforting fare.
One such heartening meal is ratatouille. After yet another day of dire news I can think of nothing more nurturing than tucking into a warm bowl of this garlic-scented, vegetable-rich, Provencal stew. With eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, peppers and hints of basil, oregano and thyme, it gives me a much needed lift when I’m down.
Who doesn’t feel bolstered by a good, hot soup? I know that I do. Pumpkin, chicken with orzo, vegetarian black bean, potato leek, vegetable and lentil-chestnut soups all boost me up when I’m hungry, tired and a bit blue.
When wallowing in carbohydrates is what I crave, I dig out my 8×8 baker and mix together some macaroni and cheese. Introduced to America by our third president, mac and cheese is the epitome of Depression-era comfort food. Today I tend to deviate from the original recipe of macaroni, cheddar and a bechamel sauce and jazz up my dish with a variety of cheeses, mushrooms, tomatoes or a bit of basil. No matter how it’s made, this dish never fails to satisfy and soothe.
MACARONI, TOMATO, BASIL AND GOAT CHEESE
2 cups elbow macaroni
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups skim milk
6 ounces goat cheese, broken into small pieces
½ cup cheddar cheese, grated
¼ teaspoon ground white pepper
1 ½ cups tomatoes (roughly 2 medium-sized tomatoes), seeded and diced
1 tablespoon fresh basil, finely chopped
1/3 cup bread crumbs
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter the bottom and sides of an 8×8 baking dish and set aside.
Following the directions on the package, cook the macaroni until al dente.
Meanwhile, in a medium-sized saucepan melt 2 tablespoons of butter then add the flour, whisking until well combined. Cook the roux for 5 minutes, stirring frequently.
Over medium heat slowly add the milk to the roux, stirring to incorporate. Cook together until slightly thickened. Add the cheeses and ground pepper to the liquid. Stir periodically until well-combined then remove from the heat.
Drain the macaroni. Tumble it into the pan with the cheese sauce and mix them together. Add the tomatoes and minced basil and stir to evenly distribute macaroni, cheese, tomatoes and basil. Spoon the entire mixture into the prepared baking dish.
Melt the remaining tablespoon of butter and pour it over the breadcrumbs. Mix together until the crumbs are coated with butter and then sprinkle over the top of the macaroni and cheese.
Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes at which time the bread crumbs should be golden and the macaroni and cheese ready to eat.