In praise of pale comfort food

New York TimesMay 7, 2013 


Rice pudding with golden raisins in New York, March 16, 2013. Potatoes, pasta and rice pudding are ideal for early spring, before the warmth and produce arrive.


It’s one of the first things people mention when they learn I have a 4-year-old daughter.

“Dahlia must be an adventurous eater,” they say.

The assumption is that because I have penchant for anchovies, pungent cheese and spicy regional cuisines, my daughter must, too.

But she doesn’t. Adventurous isn’t really the word I’d use to describe her eating habits. Picky would be more accurate.

This is despite my best efforts at eating a varied, spicy, green-vegetable-heavy diet when I was pregnant, with hopes of influencing my child’s taste buds in utero. Instead, Dahlia arrived a staunch lover of white food. It began with rivers of milk and has settled into anything carb-heavy, creamy and unchallenging, preferably anchored by pasta, bread or rice.

It’s not that every morsel Dahlia eats is white. She makes exceptions for pizza, hot dogs and almond butter-and-jelly sandwiches, all things I’ve come to see as metaphorical “white foods.”

And just as a hot dog can be a “white food,” pale cod fillets, endive, cauliflower and squid are not. Dahlia would be no more likely to eat squid than she would beets.

Meanwhile, I’ve endured hearing my friends and colleagues list the exotic morsels their preschool darlings eat: the raw oysters and sardine sandwiches, the sauteed mustard greens, curried lentils and roasted eggplant. At this point, I would be ecstatic if Dahlia consented to soup, which she has rejected as an entire category.

I know Dahlia’s narrow (or shall we say, still-maturing) palate puts her in good company. Children who eat solely white food abound.

And while most outgrow the white-food phase, others do not. They carry it with them into adulthood, forever reaching for the baked potato. My friend’s husband admits to having the palate of a 5-year-old; she usually reads menus online before they go out to see if there’s something he’ll eat.

Then there’s my former neighbor, who once admitted that she was so embarrassed by her limited palate that she made sure all her dates took her to Italian restaurants so it wouldn’t look odd if she ordered only fettuccine Alfredo.

Not that there’s anything wrong with fettuccine Alfredo, or the wider universe of white food. There is a lot to love about soft bread, sweet puddings, creamy mashed potatoes and buttery noodles, all of which speak to the child in all of us, no matter how many rarefied tastes our palates have acquired.

So let’s pay tribute to all that is good about white food. These white (or beige) dishes are a last hurrah for coziness.

I’m happy to report that all three recipes easily passed through the locked gates of Dalia’s pursed lips for a taste, with the macaroni and cheese and potpie both declared yummy. The only miss was the rice pudding, though she did eat all the raisins before proclaiming the pudding dish “too mushy.” That just left more for me.

For a printable copy of the recipes, click the links:

White Macaroni and Cheese

White Chicken Pot Pie

Rice Pudding

White Chicken Pot Pie 3 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (1 1/2 pounds) Kosher salt Black pepper 3 cups chicken stock 1 cup white wine 2 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled 1 bay leaf 1 thyme sprig 1 rosemary sprig 1 cup plus 3 tablespoons unsalted butter (19 tablespoons), chilled 2 leeks, thinly sliced, white and light green parts 1 shallot, thinly sliced 3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour 1 cup heavy cream, more as needed 1 small celery root or 2 small carrots, peeled and diced (1 1/4 cups) 1 medium potato, peeled and diced (1 1/4 cups) 1 cup frozen peas, optional 1 1/2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest (from 1 1/2 lemons) 1 tablespoon baking powder 1 1/2 cups buttermilk 3 tablespoons sliced blanched almonds

SEASON chicken lightly with salt and pepper. Let rest 15 minutes. In a medium pot over medium heat, combine chicken, stock, wine, garlic, bay leaf, thyme and rosemary. Bring to a simmer and cook chicken gently until no longer pink, 10 to 15 minutes. Transfer meat to a plate to cool completely. Strain and reserve cooking liquid (you should have about 2 3/4 cups). Once chicken is cool, shred into bite-size pieces.

HEAT oven to 375 degrees. Lightly grease a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with about 1 tablespoon butter.

MELT 4 tablespoons butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add leeks and shallot; cook until softened, 5 minutes. Melt in 4 tablespoons butter. Add 1/2 cup flour and cook, stirring occasionally, 2 minutes. Slowly whisk in strained stock and 1 cup cream. Season with 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Bring to a simmer. Add celery root and potato; simmer over low heat, stirring frequently, 10 minutes. Stir in chicken, peas (if using) and zest. Scrape mixture into the pan.

IN a large bowl, whisk together 3 cups flour, the baking powder and 1 1/2 teaspoons salt. Cut remaining 10 tablespoons butter into cubes; using a pastry cutter or 2 forks, mix into flour until mixture forms coarse crumbs. Stir in buttermilk. Dollop mixture on top of pie filling (spaces between biscuits are OK). Brush tops with cream and sprinkle with almonds. Bake until top is golden brown and filling is bubbling, 35 to 45 minutes. Cool 10 minutes before serving. Yield: 8-10 servings

Rice Pudding 3 1/2 cups whole milk 1/4 cup heavy cream 1/3 cup light brown sugar 1/2 cup long-grain white rice 1/4 teaspoon salt 1 vanilla bean, split 1 cinnamon stick or 4 cardamom pods 1 strip orange peel, 1 inch wide 1/3 cup golden raisins Creme fraiche, for serving (optional)

IN a medium heavy-bottom pot, combine milk, cream, sugar, rice and salt. Scrape in seeds from vanilla bean and drop them in along with the pod. Stir in cinnamon and orange peel. Bring mixture to a simmer; cook over medium-low heat, stirring frequently until rice is tender and mixture is slightly thickened, 30 to 40 minutes. Do not let mixture come to a boil and don’t let it get too thick, because it will thicken as it cools. Stir in raisins and let pudding rest for 5 minutes to soften them.

SERVE pudding warm, room temperature or chilled, with dollops of creme fraiche, if desired.

Yield: 6-8 servings

White Macaroni and Cheese Unsalted butter, as needed Kosher salt, as needed 1 pound pasta, such as farfalle, macaroni or shells 6 ounces Brie, rind removed and cheese cut into chunks 4 ounces cream cheese, softened and cubed 3 large eggs, lightly beaten 1 cup mascarpone 3 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated (3/4 cup) 3/4 teaspoon black pepper 1/4 teaspoon finely grated nutmeg

HEAT oven to 375 degrees. Butter a 2-quart gratin dish.

BRING a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil. Cook pasta to al dente; drain well.

TRANSFER hot pasta to a large bowl and toss immediately with Brie and cream cheese until melted and smooth. In a separate bowl, whisk together eggs, mascarpone and Parmigiano. Stir egg mixture into pasta. Season with pepper and nutmeg.

TURN pasta into prepared pan. Bake until golden brown and bubbling, about 30 minutes. Serve immediately. Yield: 6-8 servings

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