We Gather Together

Pigskin loafer: Tom Valenti wraps his savory meat loaf in bacon.Photo: Anna Williams

Take a poll on what New Yorkers are hungry for right now, and you’ll find an unprecedented consensus: comfort. We want food that nourishes the spirit and the stomach. Holiday menus are to be savored, not deciphered, so hold the sea-urchin foam and the beef-cheek gelée. Still, feel-good food needn’t be dumbed down or boringly ordinary. Some of the city’s most sophisticated chefs gave us their favorite comfort-food recipes, and after we sampled – okay, devoured – them, they became our favorites, too.

The common denominator among these dishes is a slow-cooked, one-pot heartiness: “It’s roll-up-your-sleeves kind of food,” says Tribeca Grill’s Don Pintabona. David Page’s crispy, skillet-baked macaroni and cheese is a tribute to his dad, who made it every other Thursday night. Waldy Malouf’s dad was big on cheese, too – he’d sprinkle extra on Mrs. Malouf’s cheddar-crusted apple pie. And Claudia Fleming’s brownies may be the ultimate chocolate fix – although they’re not on her menu at Gramercy Tavern. “I think,” she says, “a lot of cooks crave things they don’t have in the restaurant.” So do we.

All recipes serve 6 to 8.

Meat Loaf With Mushroom Sauce

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium Spanish onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 teaspoon chopped thyme leaves
3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon
Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon Tabasco sauce
1 cup milk
2 pounds ground meat (equal parts beef, pork, and veal preferred)
2/3 cup crushed saltines
1/4 cup minced flat-leaf parsley
1 tablespoon coarse salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
6 ounces thinly sliced bacon (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Pour the oil into a sauté pan and set over medium-high heat. Add the onion and garlic and sauté until translucent, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool.

In a mixing bowl, stir together the eggs, thyme, Dijon mustard, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco sauce, and milk.

Place the ground meat into another bowl and pour the egg mixture over the meat. Add the saltines, parsley, onion, and garlic to the bowl. Season with salt and pepper.

Roll up your sleeves, and knead the meat together with the other ingredients until well blended (if you like, cook a small portion of the mixture in a pan, taste, and adjust seasoning).

Transfer to a cookie sheet and form into a loaf. If using the bacon, wrap the slices lengthwise over the top and tuck them under the loaf, to completely cover the meat.

Bake for 1 hour or until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center of the loaf reads 160 degrees. Remove from the oven and set aside to rest for 5 minutes. Slice and serve with mushroom sauce (recipe below) and mashed potatoes.

Mushroom Sauce
3 tablespoons butter
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 portobello mushrooms, cut into 3/8-inch cubes
1 16-ounce can low-sodium beef broth
1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms, ground to dust in a coffee grinder
1 tablespoon Wondra flour

Heat 2 tablespoons butter in a sauté pan, add the garlic and portobello, and sauté until soft.

Bring the broth to a boil in a saucepan, and reduce by a quarter. Remove from the heat and add the ground porcini.

Mix the flour and 4 tablespoons water in a bowl, stirring until combined. Add the sautéed mushrooms and flour to the porcini broth, set the saucepan over low heat, and stir until the broth thickens. Stir in the remaining butter just before serving.

Lasagna Bolognese

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 medium onions, finely chopped
1 carrot, finely chopped
4 stalks celery, finely chopped
5 cloves garlic, sliced
1 pound veal, ground
1 pound pork, ground
4 ounces pancetta, ground
1 8-ounce can tomato paste
1 cup milk
1/2 cup white wine
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

5 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup flour
3 cups milk
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

3/4 to 1 pound fresh pasta sheets, about 7 by 4 inches, or dried lasagne noodles blanched for 6 minutes and refreshed
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Oil for brushing

Ragù: In a large heavy-bottom saucepan, heat olive oil. Add onion, carrot, celery, and garlic, and sweat over medium heat for about 5 minutes, until vegetables are translucent. Add veal, pork, and pancetta to the vegetables, and brown over high heat, stirring to keep the meat from sticking together. Add the tomato paste, milk, wine, thyme, and 1 cup water, and simmer over medium-low heat for 1 to 11/2 hours (if the ragù becomes too thick, add a little more water). Season to taste with salt and pepper, and remove from heat.

Béchamel: Melt the butter in a medium saucepan, add the flour, and whisk until smooth. Cook over medium heat, stirring regularly, until the mixture turns golden brown, about 6 to 7 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat the milk in a separate pan until it is just about to boil. Add the milk to the butter mixture, 1 cup at a time, whisking continuously until the sauce is very smooth. Bring to a boil and cook for 30 seconds longer. Remove from the heat and season with salt and nutmeg.

Assembly: Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Brush a 9-by-13-inch glass baking dish with melted butter or oil, and layer in the following order from the bottom: ragù, pasta, béchamel, and grated cheese (saving about 1 cup béchamel for last topping), making 3 to 4 layers of pasta, finishing with ragù, béchamel, and 1/4 cup of the Parmigiano-Reggiano sprinkled over the top. Bake in the oven for 45 minutes, until the top is golden brown and the casserole is bubbling. Remove from the oven, allow to cool for 20 minutes, slice, and serve.

Roasted Chicken

1 to 1 and a 1/2 pounds fingerling potatoes, washed and halved
2 large carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
2 large parsnips, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
10 shallots, peeled and halved
15 cremini mushrooms, halved
5 garlic cloves, peeled
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 lemon
2 3 and a 1/2-pound organic chickens
4 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
4 sprigs each of tarragon, rosemary, and thyme
1 cup dry white wine
Fleur de sel

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Toss the potatoes, carrots, parsnips, shallots, mushrooms, and garlic with the oil and a generous pinch of salt and pepper in a large roasting pan. Cut the lemon in half, and rub the chickens with the lemon flesh and then the butter, and season the birds generously with salt and pepper. Place half a lemon and 2 sprigs of tarragon, rosemary, and thyme in the cavity of each chicken.

Arrange the chickens on top of the vegetables, and roast in the lower half of the oven for 45 minutes to 1 hour or until chickens are cooked and the skin is crisp, basting the chickens every 20 minutes. If the birds are not crisp, increase the oven temperature to 475 degrees for the last 10 to 15 minutes of cooking.

Remove from the oven, cover the chickens loosely with aluminum foil, and allow the chickens and vegetables to rest in the pan for 20 minutes.

Remove chicken and vegetables to a platter, pour the fat off the pan, deglaze with the wine, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Sprinkle the carved chicken and vegetables with fleur de sel, and serve with pan juices.

Yankee Bean Soup

1 pound navy beans or white beans, soaked overnight
3 ham hocks
1 gallon (16 cups) chicken broth
1 bay leaf
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 stalks celery, cut into small dice
2 large carrots, cut in small dice
1 large onion cut into 1/4-inch dice
1 medium onion, left whole
2 cloves garlic, minced
8 cloves
3 medium Idaho potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Hot sauce, to taste (optional)
1/4 cup chopped parsley
1 tablespoon fresh thyme

Drain the soaked beans and discard the water. Place the beans, ham hocks, chicken broth, and bay leaf in a soup pot; do not add salt at this stage. Bring to a boil and simmer for about 1 hour, depending on how long the beans were soaked.

Heat the oil in a separate saucepan, add the celery, carrots, and diced onion, and sauté over medium heat, until softened, about 2 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté until fragrant.

Stud the whole onion with the cloves. Stir the sautéed vegetables into the beans, add the whole onion and diced potatoes, and return to a boil. Reduce the heat, and simmer until the beans and potatoes are tender, about 30 minutes. Remove the whole onion, bay leaf, and ham hocks. Remove the meat from the ham hocks, and dice, discarding the fat and bones.

Purée half of the soup in a blender, and return the purée to the remaining soup in the pot, along with the diced ham. Reheat the soup, and season to taste with salt and pepper and hot sauce if desired. Finally finish the soup with the addition of the parsley and thyme.

Note: When soup is finished, you may add to it 1 to 2 cups of cooked, chopped escarole, Swiss chard, or broccoli rabe for garnish if desired.

Cheeze whiz: David Page's skillet-roasted mac'n'cheese is a tribute to his dad.Photo: Anna Williams

Perfect Pot Roast

2 tablespoons canola oil
1 6-pound beef rump roast
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
1 cup beef broth
1 cup dry red wine
2 large carrots, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 sprigs fresh marjoram
2 sprigs fresh thyme
2 bay leaves
Pinch of ground cinnamon
18 to 24 pearl onions, peeled
18 baby carrots, peeled and trimmed
18 tiny new potatoes, scrubbed
12 baby turnips, scrubbed and trimmed
1 cup frozen petit peas, thawed and drained
1 tablespoon cornstarch dissolved in 1 tablespoon cold water, or 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened and kneaded into 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour (optional)

Heat the oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat. Season the meat generously with salt and pepper and sear, turning frequently, until all sides are lightly browned.

Remove the meat from the pot. Drain off all the fat and carefully wipe the pot clean with paper towels. Return the meat to the pot, add the broth, wine, 1 cup water, chopped carrots and onion, tomato paste, marjoram, thyme, bay leaves, cinnamon, and salt and pepper to taste.

Bring to a boil and immediately reduce the heat, cover, and cook at a low simmer for about 2 and a 1/2 to 3 hours or until the meat is almost tender. Alternatively, the pot roast can be cooked in a 350-degree oven for about 3 hours.

Remove the meat from the cooking liquid and set it aside. Skim off the excess fat from the cooking liquid and strain the liquid through a fine sieve, pressing against the solids to extract as much of the liquid as possible. Discard the solids.

Return the meat and the strained liquid to the Dutch oven. Add the pearl onions, baby carrots, potatoes, and turnips, place over medium heat, and bring to a boil. Lower the heat, and simmer for 15 minutes. Add the peas, and cook for an additional 5 minutes or until the vegetables are tender.

Remove the meat and vegetables from the cooking liquid, and place them on a serving platter. Tent lightly with aluminum foil to keep warm. If the cooking liquid is not thick like a gravy, return it to medium heat and whisk in the optional cornstarch mixture or the butter-flour mixture, a small amount at a time.

Slice the meat into 1/4-inch-thick pieces and arrange it down the center of the serving platter. Place the vegetables around the edge of the platter, and spoon some gravy over the top. Serve with the remaining gravy.

Dad’s Macaroni and Cheese

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus extra for the skillet
1 large yellow onion, cut in 1/8-inch dice
1 tablespoon minced garlic
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
4 cups whole milk
1 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3/4 cup grated extra-sharp Cheddar cheese
3/4 cup grated Wisconsin Asiago cheese
3/4 cup grated dry Jack cheese (Parmesan can be substituted)
1 pound elbow macaroni, cooked and drained
2 plum tomatoes, sliced
1/2 cup fresh breadcrumbs
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1 tablespoon chopped thyme
1 tablespoon chopped chives

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onions and garlic, and cook until they are softened, about 2 minutes. Whisk in the flour and cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture turns light brown, about 3 minutes. Gradually whisk in the milk. Add the paprika, nutmeg, salt, and pepper. Reduce the heat to low and cook, stirring, until the sauce is thickened, about 5 minutes. Add the cheeses, and stir until they are melted. Add the macaroni, and stir until the noodles are thoroughly coated. Remove from the heat. (Do not allow the macaroni to sit at this stage as it will dry out.)

Butter two 6-inch cast-iron skillets or one 12-inch skillet. Transfer the macaroni mixture into the skillets. Top with the sliced tomatoes. Sprinkle bread crumbs on top.

Bake until the cheese is bubbling and golden brown, about 30 minutes. Garnish with the chopped herbs.

Apple Pie With a Cheddar Crust

Pie crust:

1 and 3/4 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
1/4 teaspoon coarse salt
1 cup grated good-quality sharp cheddar cheese (about 1/4 pound)
3/4 cup (1 and a 1/2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut in 8 pieces
1 large egg

5 or 6 large tart apples such as McIntosh or Cortland, peeled, cored, and sliced thin
1/2 bourbon vanilla bean, split lengthwise (regular vanilla bean can be substituted)
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
3/4 cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons flour

Crust: Put the flour, salt, and cheese into the bowl of a food processor and pulse three to four times until the cheese is finely chopped and evenly distributed. Add the butter and pulse three to four times until the mixture has the consistency of corn meal. (It should not be smooth.) Transfer the mixture to a medium-size bowl. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture and break in the egg. Using a fork, stir the egg into the flour mixture. With your hands, knead the dough into a mass, then divide into two balls, one slightly larger than the other. Pat and spread the larger ball of dough into a 9-inch pie plate. Place the remaining dough between 2 pieces of wax paper, and roll to form the top crust. Refrigerate or freeze both crusts, covered, for at least 2 hours.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Remove the pastry from the refrigerator 1/2 hour before baking.

Put the apples and vanilla bean in a bowl, squeeze the lemon over them, and sprinkle on the salt, sugar, and flour. Using your hands, mix the filling thoroughly and pile it into the pie crust. Cover the apples with the top crust. Dip your finger in water and run it along the pie plate between the two crusts, then crimp the edges and trim the crust. Slash the top crust or cut a decorative shape out of the pastry to allow the steam to escape, and bake the pie on the bottom shelf of the oven for 1/2 hour. Lay a piece of foil loosely over the pie, and bake for another 20 to 25 minutes or until the juices are bubbling and the fruit is tender (stick a knife through the opening in the crust to see if it is done). Serve warm, with or without extra cheese.

Chocolate Brownies

8 ounces unsalted butter, plus additional for greasing the pan
4 ounces high-quality unsweetened chocolate (preferably Scharffen Berger)
2 large eggs
1 and 2/3 cups sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup coarsely chopped pecans (or 1/3 cup pecans and 1/3 cup chocolate chips)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Melt the butter and chocolate in a bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water.

Beat the eggs, sugar, and vanilla together in a bowl until combined. Add the melted butter and chocolate, and whisk until incorporated. Fold in the flour and salt, and finally stir in the nuts.

Pour into a greased 9-by-9-inch pan and bake for approximately 35 minutes or until it’s just pulling away from the sides; the center should be very moist but not runny.

Allow to cool in the pan before cutting. Best served when the brownies have rested for several hours.


We Gather Together