Monday, April 27, 2009

The Compassionate Cook

A dear friend of mine received some very sad news over the weekend. So I did the only thing I knew to do: I cooked a bunch of food for her. I'm not pushing emotional eating, but I am an advocate for gestures of kindness. 

I think it's one of the best attributes of the South — an open expression of compassion that appears at the first indication of something difficult going on. This often takes the shape of an army of people invading your house with food, cleaning supplies and childcare. Let's face it, when you're going through something terrible, a trip to the grocery store is the last thing on your mind. I've been brought to tears myself standing in front of of the meat case telling whomever will listen, "My granddad just died and I don't know what I should make for dinner tonight." I think the only thing worse is the sound of chirping crickets that followed. Had that happened in the South, I know a complete stranger next to me would have said, "Bless your heart. You don't need to be worryin' about supper at a time like this. Just go pick up a bucket of chicken." I know that sounds silly but it would've make all the difference. Those moments save you from despair and disorientation. It's really a gesture of reassurance. 

When people we care about are going through something scary or hard, I think we all feel a strong emotional response but often just don't know what to do. My mom taught me that it's always important to acknowledge it — even if you don't know what to say. Just a simple "I'm so sorry" can speak volumes. But at times, I want to do more. That usually translates to some type of food being cooked up and delivered. I think everyone needs a few great dishes in their back pocket that can be pulled out when you want to cook up a little compassion. 

I know even the thought of the casserole can conjure up fear or disgust. I think, like many things in life, a few bad apples have spoiled the bunch. I won't lie: The words "tuna" and "helper" create a gag reflex for me. But as my cooking experience expanded, I learned there are plenty of delicious dishes that can be prepared in advanced and enjoyed later. Soups are also wonderful options. They should be all be things that will last for several days or can be frozen. 

While food can nourish the body, kindness nourishes the soul. I believe that anything made with love can do both. 

Tex-Mex Shepherd's Pie

1.25 lbs lean ground turkey
1 package low sodium taco seasoning
1 onion, chopped
1 can corn
1 can black beans
1 container fresh salsa
4 russet potatoes
1 1/2 cups chicken stock
1/2 stick unsalted butter
2-3 cups Monterrey Jack cheese, shredded
1 Tbsp horseradish 
Salt and pepper

Brown the meat in a large skillet. Drain off any fat and add taco seasoning and 3/4 cup water. Bring to a boil and then simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from skillet and reserve meat. Add onion and a Tbsp of olive oil to same skillet and cook over moderate heat for 7-10 minutes. Add drained corn and beans along with the salsa to the skillet. Combine and add back in turkey and heat through. 
Meanwhile, prepare potatoes. Peel and cube potatoes and place in large pot of water. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer for 15 minutes (or until potatoes are fork tender). Drain and return potatoes to pot. Add butter, 1/2 cup of chicken stock, 1 cup shredded cheese and 1/2 Tbsp horseradish and mash. Add more butter, chicken stock and cheese as needed to create creamy consistency. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Place the turkey and vegetable mixture in a casserole dish and spread the mashed potatoes on top. When ready to bake, put in a 375 degree oven and cook covered for 30-45 minutes or until bubbling. Remove lid/cover and add a few handfuls of the shredded cheese on top of the warm potatoes. Broil for just a few minutes to brown the top. Yields: 6-8 servings. 

Note: This is very versatile. You can certainly use beef instead of turkey, and pinto and kidney beans would be great instead of black beans. I often add in other vegetables that I have on hand (i.e. zucchini or bell pepper), and have even thrown in some chopped chorizo or chipotle chili to add some smokiness. Pork with roasted pasillas would be delicious too. 

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