Mouths to Feed: Discomfort Food

An English friend moved from London to Manhattan in the 1990s and rented a gorgeous, tiny apartment on Bank Street, in the West Village. Every Sunday for three years, she would go to the Waverly Inn for dinner. And every Sunday for three years, she would order the exact same thing: Turkey with stuffing, cranberry jelly and mashed potatoes, all drenched with gluey, beige gravy. 

The kitchen was not well run in those days; the food had all the vitality of a TV dinner. I used to chide her for her dreary habit. 

She replied that she liked knowing what to expect. 

I suppose the meal’s very familiarity was a kind of deliciousness to her during those early years in an unfamiliar city.

Most people I know wouldn’t choose to sit down to turkey with stuffing and gravy once a month, let alone once a week, even if the dinner were made by a brilliant chef. Yet most of us would also probably agree with my English friend’s logic that the very monotony of the Thanksgiving feast is part of what makes it so appealing. The whole point of comfort food is that is offers surprise-free reassurance, after all. And late November, as daylight shutters toward darkness and the cold seeps through the floorboards, is a time when we need such consolations dearly. 

And yet for me, like for a lot of people I know, the Thanksgiving feast can feel like an island of comfort amid a small sea of discomforts. Among them are the familiar ache of eating beyond my stomach’s natural capacity, and the ensuing pinch of the waistband; the subsequent days when I go on eating as if I am actually proud of my inability to learn from experience; and the Jenga-like challenge of slotting leftover containers in and out of a precarious fridge. Then there are the days leading up to Thanksgiving with their planning, shopping, cooking and house-cleaning; the last-minute, emoji-festooned texts from relatives (“The pie shop was closed. I’ll be bringing Chex mix instead. Hope you don’t mind!”); and the relatives themselves — God bless them, every one. 

Finally, there’s the distress of acknowledging that most of our Thanksgiving stories are, at best, sanitized versions of an altogether more complex reality, and, at worst, myths that we perpetuate at the often-brutal expense of their protagonists. 

Yet it would be disingenuous of me to suggest that these vexations are why I crave the opposite of comfort foods in the days immediately surrounding Thanksgiving. My palate is not especially smart, after all, and it is certainly not versed in history or family psychology. It simply knows what it wants, like a child. And what it wants at the moment are bold, sharp flavors, whether tart, spicy, bitter, salty or bracing. 

Which is why, the other day, I reached for the cookbook where I long ago came across inspiration for this week’s recipe. I tossed the salad together quickly, ignoring quantities, and served it with leftover parsnips and potatoes. It was perfect. Two days later, I had the same salad alongside roast squash, and later still with turkey sandwiches. In the past, I served it as an “amuse” with a small glass of sherry; it’s a great aperitif.

To me, a salad like this reflects and celebrates the sharp complexities of our days, rather than swaddling them in a warm gravy blanket. How wonderful that food can do both, and so much more. It’s something I’ll go on being thankful for in the year ahead. 

Parsley Salad with Parmesan Crisps
Adapted from Roast Chicken and Other Stories, by Simon Hopkinson

For the parsley salad

  • 2 ounces red onion, very thinly sliced
  • 1 small garlic clove, minced
  • 2 tablespoons vinegar
  • ½ teaspoon sugar
  • Salt and pepper
  • 2 tablespoons brined capers 
  • Oil for frying capers
  • 2 ounces parsley leaves, from about 2 bunches
  • 1 ounce black olives, coarsely chopped
  • ¼ cup best-quality olive oil, or to taste
  • 2 large anchovy filets, coarsely chopped or torn
  • Grated rind of one lemon, plus lemon juice to taste

In a small bowl, combine the onion and garlic, the vinegar, sugar and a generous pinch of salt, plus enough water to cover. Set aside. Drain the capers and spread on a paper towel to dry thoroughly. Put enough olive oil in a small frying pan to cover the bottom by about 1/8 inch. Heat over medium-high until shimmering. Transfer the capers to the pan and fry until they start to darken, pop and “blossom,” 2 to 3 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on a paper-towel-lined plate. Set aside. 

Drain the onion-garlic mixture. Toss together with the parsley, olives, black pepper and enough olive oil to coat. Combine the anchovy, lemon zest and lemon juice, and add to the parsley mixture. Toss everything together, taste and drizzle with more olive oil or lemon juice if needed. Serve topped with fried capers, with parmesan crisps on the side.

For the parmesan crisps

  • 1 ounce Parmesan, grated with a microplane

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment or a silpat. Drop the Parmesan by heaping tablespoons onto the lined baking sheet. Transfer to the oven and cook until golden, about 4 to 5 minutes. Cool on the pan for 10 minutes, then transfer to a rack to continue to crisp. 

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