- The Washington Times - Monday, September 15, 2003

Fans of Marian Burros can find a lot of comfort in her latest cookbook. The recipes are typically straightforward, uncomplicated, conscious of this age’s attention to healthy foods and cooking. Some of the recipes require a little time, but the comforting result is worth the effort.

The subtitle for “Cooking for Comfort” says it all: “More Than 100 Wonderful Recipes That are as Satisfying to Cook as They are to Eat” — and right below the title is a gentle photograph of what appears to be the world’s most comforting dish of macaroni and cheese. I cannot imagine Ms. Burros wasting her time on something that is not satisfying to cook or to eat.

Consider the titles of her previous books, beginning with the early ones, “Come for Cocktails, Stay for Supper,” “The Summertime Cookbook,” “Freeze With Ease,” “Second Helpings” and the classic “The Elegant but Easy Cookbook.” These five cookbooks were written with Lois Levine, who also collaborated with Ms. Burros for “The New Elegant but Easy Cookbook,” published in 1998 and, since earlier this year, in paperback.

A friend who was unaware of the update with “New Elegant,” said she still uses the paperback of the original “Elegant,” which dates from 1976.

Ms. Burros’ later books are “You’ve Got It Made,” “Pure and Simple,” “The Best of De Gustibus,” “Keep It Simple: 30-Minute Meals From Scratch,” “Eating Well is the Best Revenge” and “20-Minute Menus.” Last month while I was looking for recipes of Sri Lankan cooking in an English-language bookstore there in Colombo, it was a special comfort to see “20-Minute Menus” nicely displayed on a shelf, although the shop had no Sri Lankan cookbooks.

I remember when Ms. Burros joined the staff of the Washington Star after that late newspaper bought the Washington Daily News. Her presence certainly brightened the Star’s food section.

When she left the Star for The Washington Post, a rumor that made the rounds of the newsroom at the Star held that Ms. Burros left after the editor asked her to tone down her pro-consumer articles because they were irritating a major grocery chain. Ms. Burros says she was not aware of any such ultimatum but was aware that the grocery chain “has always hated me.”

She went to the Post, she says, after she received a phone call at work from the then-managing editor of the Post. “To return the call I had to go to that liquor store on the corner by the Star building so nobody would hear me,” she says.

Ms. Burros later left the Post for the food section of the New York Times, where she also was a restaurant critic in addition to her food articles.

The idea for “Cooking for Comfort,” she says, came about because of a column she wrote about comfort foods in a syndicated column for the New York Times. She says that she received more mail after that column appeared than for anything else she has written. The book was a recipe for the times — in several ways.

Ms. Burros writes that her mother had “an enormous culinary influence” on her. “When I finally had a kitchen of my own, I couldn’t wait to experiment with dishes that were different from my mother’s — despite the fact that my mother was a very good cook.”

Working on “Cooking for Comfort” brought Ms. Burros “back to the dishes I have loved,” and she realized, “I am my mother’s daughter, even in the kitchen. This love of cooking has passed on to both of my children; it always makes me smile when my daughter, Ann, calls and asks for advice on making a dish. She is an instinctive cook and probably never reads recipes.”

Ms. Burros’ son, Michael, owns a much-praised vegetarian restaurant, O Cabalino do Demo, in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, and she includes “Michael’s Eggplant Lasagna” in “Cooking for Comfort.” That lasagna, she says, “is the kind of dish you want to make when you need to cook to calm yourself. There are several steps and several hours involved in its preparation.” She recommends a wine to be served with the lasagna, as well, as she does with many of the other recipes.

After joining the New York Times, Ms. Burros has alternated weeklong stays in New York with a week at her home in Bethesda. This summer, she added a house in Vermont into the mix.

I have not tried Ms. Burros’ recipe for risotto, but her shortcut of chilling and refrigerating the partially cooked risotto reduces the cooking time. “This is what chefs do in Italian restaurants so that you don’t have to wait forever when you order risotto,” she says.

A colleague has followed Ms. Burros’ recipe for that most comforting macaroni and cheese on the book jacket and said it is the best he has ever eaten. Here is how Ms. Burros does it:

Macaroni and cheese

“This recipe, from the Canal House restaurant in New York City’s Soho Grand Hotel, has been lifted from my last cookbook, ‘The New Elegant but Easy Cookbook.’” Ms. Burros writes. “Some things are worth repeating.

“I have never met anyone who ate just one serving.”

1 cup diced onion

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour

2 cups low-fat milk

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

10 ounces extra-sharp aged white cheddar, grated, plus 2 ounces, grated

Salt and freshly ground white pepper to taste

1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon hot pepper sauce

8 ounces cavatappi (pasta; see note)

2 tablespoons grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

In a large saucepan, cook the onion over low heat in the melted butter until the onion is soft but not browned, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in the flour. Remove from the heat and whisk in the milk until thoroughly blended. Return to medium heat and cook, stirring, until the mixture begins to thicken. Remove from the heat and stir in the mustard and the 10 ounces of Cheddar, the salt, pepper, nutmeg, and hot pepper sauce.

Meanwhile, cook the cavatappi according to package directions until just al dente. Drain but do not rinse. Stir immediately into the prepared cheese sauce until well blended. Adjust the seasonings.

Spoon the mixture into a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Top with the remaining 2 ounces of cheddar and the Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Place the rack in the bottom third of oven. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and bake for about 30 minutes, until the mixture is hot, bubbling throughout, and golden. Makes 3 to 4 servings as a main dish or 6 servings as a side dish.

Note: The finished casserole can be refrigerated before baking. To serve, let the dish return to room temperature and follow the baking directions.

The quality and sharpness of the cheese are all-important to the success of this dish. Use a white cheddar that has been aged for at least 2 years. “Grafton Village Cheese is always my choice,” Ms. Burros writes.

Other corkscrew pastas can be substituted for the cavatappi; the sauce adheres beautifully to this shape.

Cheese omelet

Is anything more comforting than a cheese omelet? It’s up there with the best, and Ms. Burros is of the same opinion:

“If I ate whatever I wanted, I would have a cheese omelet every day for breakfast,” write Ms. Burros.

“Eggs are versatile, but they are also very delicate and must be treated with respect. My preference in omelets is for what the French call baveuse — very soft on the inside. Cook it too long and it becomes rubbery. If you are an aficionado of omelets, it’s worth it to buy an omelet pan and use it for nothing else. A finely grated cheddar is perfect because it must melt quickly without a tremendous amount of heat.

“Beat two eggs just enough to let a few bubbles form; season with a bit of salt and pepper. Heat the omelet pan with a tablespoon of unsalted butter and, over high heat, pour in the eggs. Let the eggs set for about 10 seconds and then, using a long narrow spatula, keep pulling the eggs away from the sides, tipping the pan so that the uncooked egg can fill in those spaces.

“When most of the egg has coagulated, sprinkle on about 2 tablespoons of cheese, fold the omelet in half, and cook for another 30 seconds. Slide out onto a plate and serve. This recipe makes 1 serving.”

Ms. Burros’ dessert recipes have a comfort all their own. How could anybody not try a recipe called “Mom’s Apple Pie” — even if it is a pie by Sue Simon’s mother and not Ms. Burros’? Caramel apple tart, coconut cake, gingered gingerbread with ginger ice cream. Pineapple upside-down cake — made with fresh, not canned, pineapple. What temptations these are.

This time of year is perfect for Ms. Burros’ plum torte, about which she writes:

“Because of reader demand, this recipe was published in one form or another in the New York Times almost every year between 1983 and 1995, when the then editor of the food section told me to tell my readers it was the last year it would be published, and if they lost it, it was too bad. She suggested they cut it out, laminate it, and put it on the refrigerator door.

“My co-author of the first ‘Elegant but Easy Cookbook’ brought this recipe to the book. Its appeal comes from its lovely old-fashioned flavor and its speed of preparation. It was originally called Fruit Torte.”

Plum torte

3/4 cup plus 1 or 2 tablespoons sugar

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter

1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour, sifted

1 teaspoon baking powder

2 eggs

Pinch salt

24 halves pitted Italian (prune or purple) plums

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon, or more

Vanilla ice cream, optional

Arrange a rack in the lower third of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

In an electric mixer, cream the 3/4 cup sugar and butter. Add the flour, baking powder, eggs, and salt and beat to mix well. Place in a 9- or 10-inch ungreased springform pan. Cover the top with the plums, skin side down. Mix the cinnamon with the remaining 1 or 2 tablespoons of sugar and sprinkle over the top.

Bake for 40 to 50 minutes, until the center tests done with a toothpick. Remove and cool to room temperature or serve warm. Serve plain or with vanilla ice cream.

Note: The torte may be refrigerated or frozen for several months, well wrapped. To serve, return to room temperature and reheat at 300 degrees until warm.

How’s that for comfort?

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