"To cut with a sharp knife a bright green watermelon on a big scarlet plate of a summer afternoon. Ah, is this not happiness?... The philosopher ought to be ashamed . . . ashamed that he wears spectacles, has no appetite, is often distressed in mind and heart, and is entirely unconscious of the fun in life."
"Happiness is just a matter of digestion."
~Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living
There seem to be implications for the social nature of such food preferences. The choices vary according to cultural divides, but align themselves rather neatly in subsets within certain demographic patterns. The study revealed younger people and women prefer snack foods to soothe their soulful woes, whereas middle-aged/older men seek heartier, heavier fare such as soups, stews, roast beasts and casseroles. The road to consolation has many on-ramps. However, much as I devote myself to conjuring my roasts and boils, I find my path off-road when it comes to the question of "comfort foods".
Happiness is a state of mind. It is an intrinsic quality/characteristic, not to be found outside of one's innerworld. One can live in abject poverty, be born without limbs, i.e. experience any of innumerable adverse conditions, yet still manage to find that seed of joy flourishing within oneself. Or conversely, one can live in relative comfort and be miserable. Not everyone is wired with receptors for all the frequencies and bandwidths that Happiness (with its capital H) emits. Though I personally like to believe we're all only a Planck length away from Happiness at any given time. Trite? Cliche? Mayhaps, but true and worth repeating since I find current society increasingly composed of perpetual toddlers, throwing tantrums and casting blame upon everyone and everything other than themselves. In fact, the pursuit of Happiness is now considered nothing more than banal bourgeoise servitude, a cog in the capitalistic machine. So wrong-minded a stance. Whining has now become our national pastime, instead. With this much I can agree: Happiness has nothing to do with materialism or consumerism. "Things" do not make you happy. Not even delicious things. Only your mindset can create an environment in which to flourish in your "happy" place, if you learn to divorce yourself from the idea of a particular reality being a causal factor for delight. Circumstances may inform us, but they do not define us. Our psyches defy such boundaries. So do our hearts.
Proust's bite of madeleine may have transported him back to a place in time where he was more carefree, in more beloved company, but it is not in itself an indelible vehicle for happiness. At least, not for me. Whilst I understand intellectually how food is endowed with restorative powers (every morsel you eat affects your body like a dose of medicine, setting off a chain of biochemical reactions acting for either good or ill) the emotional attachments to certain foods is something that eludes me, but - if Professor Gabriel's studies are any indication - that may be because mine wasn't the most nurturing childhood. So I don't have have a go-to dish for when my dol is drum, or when a Trump presidency seems imminent. I don't think of food that way. Although perhaps I should - considering the passion I have for all things culinary. The truth is when I'm sad or depressed, I can't eat or drink. I lose my appetite.
Professor Gabriel's study suggests the fact that I have so few charming idyllic childhood memories to recount, as well as strained relations with my mother, may explain why I have no "comfort foods". Frankly, my mother was never motherly; in fact, she was the opposite: she required nurturing. I was her babysitter for most of my life, though she didn't even have legal custody of me. The person (other than my husband) to take care of me when I was sick was my grandmother before a debilitating stroke took her away from me. I was 12. I was, and still continue to be, highly susceptible to respiratory and ear infections.
I do fondly recall Abuelita brewing up fresh cups of te de tilo, te de manzanilla - lovely flowery teas with fragrant aromas, adding syrupy miel de abeja (honey) and a lip-puckering amount of fresh lemon. Sometimes I'd take those dried tea flowers before they steeped and make sweet little bouquets out of them for my Barbie doll. They were so pretty. Fresh sancochos were also staples in my Abuelita's flu arsenal; although those sancochos were fairly regular fare, not necessarily prepared specifically to cure my many fevers and strep throats. In Puerto Rico, sancocho is considered a rustic dish. It is made with chicken and smoked ham (Sancocho de gallina), top round beef (sancocho), pork feet with chick peas (sancocho de patitas), or beef short ribs with chorizo. There are several versions and every household has its own take on sancocho, but a true Puerto Rican sancocho always calls for corn on the cob, a variety of tubers, guineos, sofrito, and sazón. Other vegetables and flavoring can include celery, carrots, ginger, thyme, parsley, bay leaves, orégano, wine, and rum. The hearty stew is served with a small bowl of rice, pique criollo, tostones, and bread - preferably fresh hot "pan de manteca" slathered in melted butter from the local panaderia. When my abuelita took ill, I was left in my grandfather's sole custody (for about 3 years until he died), and I mostly fended for myself. Grandpa spent most of his time stewed (but not with sancocho). It wasn't his fault, he missed his beloved Clara (my abuelita) and alcohol was his coping mechanism. Lipton Chicken Noodle cup of soups and the occasional can of Progresso Chicken Minestrone were my cold remedies. They were easy for me to heat up when I could barely stand.
Soups are still what I would objectively consider the go-to curative for me. I suppose if I really think about it - anything warm and liquidy is good for an ailing body, the simmering of the aromatics and vegetables in their own juices, water or broth are nutritious and soothing, loosening up congestion and clearing air passages, as well as replenishing the fluids lost from sneezing and wheezing. There is something supremely satisfying in the first sip of soup, the application of cool steel or porcelain to hot lips as warm broth flows from it on your tongue, the savory vaporous fumes wending their way through all those aching cavities crying for relief. It is a loosening, a relaxing, a succumbing to a flavor-filled savior. Of course, I prefer to make soup myself now, except for the occasional ordering in of Thailand's superb Tom Yum Gai and Tom Kha Gai, or an umami-rich Chinese Hot and Sour soup. The Asians have the right idea. The chilies in these soups are truly medicinal. Chili pepper contains an impressive list of plant-derived chemical compounds that are known to have disease preventing and health promoting properties.There's an alkaloid compound in them, capsaicin, which gives them strong spicy pungent character. Early laboratory studies on experimental mammals suggest that capsaicin has anti-bacterial, anti-carcinogenic, analgesic and anti-diabetic properties. It also found to reduce LDL cholesterol levels in obese individuals.
Fresh chili peppers, red and green, are an excellent source of vitamin-C. 100 g fresh chilies provide about 143.7 µg or about 240% of RDA. Vitamin C is a potent water-soluble antioxidant. It is required for the collagen synthesis inside the human body. Collagen is one of the main structural protein required for maintaining the integrity of blood vessels, skin, organs, and bones. Regular consumption of foods rich in vitamin C helps protect from scurvy, develop resistance against infectious agents (boosts immunity), and scavenge harmful, pro-inflammatory free radicals from the body. They also contain other antioxidants such as vitamin-A, and flavonoids like ß-carotene, a-carotene, lutein, zea-xanthin, and cryptoxanthin. These antioxidant substances in capsicum help protect the body from injurious effects of free radicals generated during stress, diseases, and other physically debilitating conditions. They are high in essential B-complex vitamins - vitamins that we can only derive from food sources. They are chockfull of potassium, iron, magnanese and magnesium, which helps to stabilize heart rate & blood pressure. I won't tout them as a miracle food, but when combined with other aromatics with strong anti-bacterial qualities like garlic, onion, ginger, and a squeeze of something citrus like lime or lemon, you've got a very tasty nutrient-dense germ-combatant.
Now if you live alone or with a culinary-challenged other, you are not likely to be motivated to cook for yourself, but I am going to suggest a simple soup whose preparation requires minimal muss and fuss. It is the thing that my husband requests most when he is feeling unwell. Cauliflower soup. Silky, savory, yummy. Just olive oil, garlic, ginger, onion, cauliflower, store-bought Thai curry paste and stock. I sauté the aromatics, add cauliflower, let that all sweat together for a bit, add stock, bring it to a boil, lower to a simmer for 45 minutes to an hour, then purée with an immersion blender. Voila!
Curried Cauliflower Soup
The milk-sweet, almost nutty flavor of cauliflower is at its best from December through March when it is in season and most plentiful in your local markets. It has a long history, originally said to hail from Asia Minor, making its way to Turkey and Italy about 600 BC. It garnered a place in French cuisine in the mid-16th century and was subsequently cultivated in Northern Europe and the British Isles. The United States, France, Italy, India, and China are countries that produce significant amounts of cauliflower. Popular in the court of King Louis XIV, the humble cauliflower provides a royal health boost to any diet. A versatile cruciferous vegetable low in calories, full of vitamins and minerals, one cup of it is high in the antioxidant vitamin C, potassium, as well as fiber and folic acid, said to be anti-carcinogenic - giving you lots of nutritional bang for your caloric buck. When pureed, it adds a creamy emulsion that is both palate-coating and hunger-sating. No cream or butter required to satisfy your savor jones. Sabroso!
I serve it simply when I am using it as a restorative, but you can garnish it with myriad toppings from prosciutto crisps to parmesan tuiles with a dollop of mascarpone and a few snipped chives, or toasted cashews/ macadamia nuts with candied ginger, or a simple garnish of lime wedges and cilantro, or caramelized apples with toasted coconut flakes - this soup is a great base for any topping. Substitute coconut milk for vegetable stock to make this even creamier and more vegan-friendly, or use your favorite homemade/store bought chicken stock for an injection of Jewish mother's penicillin. For the more ascetic among you, plain water works just fine.
You can leave out the curry paste altogether, if you are seeking something more emotionally-nourishing rather than curative, and swirl in grated cheddar or gruyere. Variations on the theme abound, but the fragrance of sauteed sweet vidalia onions wafting through your home combined with the pungent perfume of Thai curry and earthy cauliflower anointing the air is guaranteed to get all your chi (as well as your gastric juices) flowing. The aroma always sets my nostrils flaring, unable to focus on anything else, usually making my husband and I impatient for it, and we both dig our spoons into the pot - only to taste for doneness, of course!
- 2 Tbs. olive oil (enough to coat the bottom of the pot)
- 1 medium sweet onion, chopped (2 large leeks can be substituted )
- 1 Tbs. Thai red curry paste (or Madras yellow curry powder, if you like a sweeter, milder flavor)
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 1-inch piece of fresh ginger root, minced or grated
- 1 large head cauliflower, leaves removed, chopped into 1-inch pieces
- 4 cups low-sodium stock (I used chicken, but vegetable stock or plain water are fine)
Instructions:1. Heat oil in large pot over medium-high heat. Add onion, and sauté 5 to 7 minutes, or until soft and golden. Stir in curry paste, ginger, and garlic, and cook 2 minutes more, or until all the aromatics are well-coated in the curry paste & fragrant 2. Add cauliflower to the onion mixture and saute a few minutes more. 3. Add the stock and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer 45 minutes. Cool 10 minutes, then blend with immersion blender in the same pot, or pour carefully in food processor or traditional blender until smooth. Garnish with your toppings of choice and serve! Will serve 6 people who need a little tender loving care.