Kitchen Comfort

caprese salad

Kitchen Comfort

As we’re plastered with single digit temperatures and negative windchills this month, a lot of us are turning to our kitchens for activity, warmth and escape from the winter freeze. Join us as we revisit a wonderful piece perfect for this time of year on the subject we all love: kitchen comfort.

by Jason A. Dixon

“Food is the most primitive form of comfort.”
– Sheilah Graham

There’s been quite a bit of excitement around here lately.  Our Editor-in-Chief has been raiding gardens and practically suffocating herself with herbs. Our wine connoisseur has suffered frightening vino-induced fantasies.  And our Executive Chef has apparently mistaken herself for a character in that old ad that used to play in movie theaters — only instead of popcorn and Goobers, she’s parading around with a tomato raised high.

Perhaps one day, when I get to the point where I’d sell internal organs to stock my kitchen with just the “right” instruments and ingredients, I may partake of this sense of excitement.  At the moment, however, this month’s theme inspires not so much frenzy as a pervading calm.  You see, the thought of tomatoes and basil brings my mind to the ideal of comfort; that of ingredients and dishes that are quintessentially Italian.

My family is not Italian, so I didn’t have the good fortune to experience a wide range of that type of cuisine while I was growing up.  I did, however, get exposed to — and adored — what Americans typically associate with Italian fare:  pasta, olive oil, warm buttery bread, garlic, and, of course, basil and tomatoes.  If there is such a thing as “comfort food,” this is it.  Warm, rich, lasting, and satisfying, this is the stuff of cherished family, warm security, and plenty.

The ease with which one can turn a few key ingredients into a large meal was something I dearly appreciated when I moved out on my own; not only were they straightforward and simple to prepare, but leftovers could be stretched for days.  So while I experimented with different combinations — tomato sauces, cream sauces, meaty or vegetable ones — I turned to these classic combinations again and again.  They were handy for entertaining, when a small budget could still provide food for several very dear friends.  This offered me an opportunity to continue the traditions of childhood memories into adulthood, one begun away from my home and loved ones.

As I’ve gotten older, this theme of sharing meals with friends has continued.  The circle has at times expanded, contracted, and otherwise changed, but that shared experience remains simultaneously a port of respite from the world and an impetus to adventure.

Now that I have moved toward another level of shared experience — that of the future passionate cook — I decided to take a cue from my manic colleagues and head into the kitchen.  Since the combination of tomatoes and basil seems to inspire frenzy to gastronomes (or, at the very least, any employed on the GM staff), I thought I’d see for myself what their flavors inspired.

I found myself trying basil in other dishes and was surprised at its versatility.  It holds its own quite well with all sorts of ingredients, from meat to eggs to vegetables to fruit.  But it always supports — it doesn’t overshadow.  And unlike other vegetables (and don’t get me started on whether they’re more properly called a vegetable or a fruit!), tomatoes are similar; as a complement, they are the perfect blend of strength and restraint.  Their meatiness adds substance as a side dish, and their tangy flavor certainly gives a dose of summer to any main course.

For someone just beginning to hone his kitchen skills, these ingredients are heaven-sent.  Their wide variety of uses, demonstrated in this month’s recipes (and in my own creations), will provide more than a month of experimentation.  Good luck — and Saluti!

Photo: Kelly Cline

Jason Dixon is a guest contributor to The Gilded Fork. He used to be the assistant editor, but Jennifer scared him away from the kitchen. It was the basil-sniffing thing.

Originally Published August 2005.