Once upon a time, many, many years ago, I had a job that wasn't a good fit, as they say.
This led to many days where I would be down and feel bad about things, wondering if it was me or if it was my boss or, more likely, just a bad combination that would continue to create grief for both of us.
One day, after a particularly vexing morning, I walked into Claire's Corner Copia restaurant at 1000 Chapel Street in New Haven.
The scent of homemade bread and a big smile
I smelled homemade bread, and the rich scent of homemade tomato sauce. I saw row upon row of cupcakes, cakes, and other goodies in the display case.
Then I looked up to see a dark-haired woman smiling at me. She was smiling at me like she knew I was having a bad day, like she cared about that, and like she wanted to make it better.
Just seeing Claire smile made me feel better.
Food that serves as a reminder that the world is a good place
I ordered bean and potato soup and it came with a side of Claire's warm, fresh-out-of-the oven homemade bread.
One bite of the bread, topped with butter and local honey, reminded me that a world that could provide such a heavenly treat, with just a few simple ingredients, was a good place.
I went back many times to Claire's, through good times and bad, and always had a wonderful meal there, and always loved seeing Claire smiling at her beloved customers.
Having a bad day? Here's an idea ...
The other day, I found out a friend was having a tough day. I knew just what to do. I went to , where I had seen Claire's new cookbook on display, and bought the book around noon
I started cooking around 4 p.m. and by dinner time I had for my friend a steaming bowl of hearty French Peasant Soup, a side of Grilled Cheese Florentine, and, to end the meal, Ricotta di Natale.
It was easy, we had a great meal, and it cheered my friend up. I sent her home with some leftover soup.
Memories made of homemade soup
The next day, she had her sister over and she served her the leftover soup. Her sister loved the soup too.
"It tastes just like what we used to have at Claire's," her sister said. My friend laughed. She had not told her sister yet about Claire's new cookbook, Welcome to Claire's. She and her sister, who grew up in East Haven, used to go to Claire's all the time.
And that's how memories are made. The three recipes I made are below. I encourage you to buy the book with photographs from Julie Bidwell, which has 347 more recipes. Then go home and make some soup, and memories, of your own.
French Peasant Soup
This soup, as the book points out, is almost more like a stew. Packed with healthy ingredients, it is perfect for a cold winter's night. The star of the show here, I will have to say, is that half stick of butter. It transforms the soup from ordinary to extraordinary.
12 ounces Great Northern Beans, picked over
1 small onion, chopped
8 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
1 bay leaf
1/4 teaspoon dried basil
6 carrots, chopped
1/2 bunch celery, chopped
1/4 cup chopped parsley
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter
1 small head green cabbage, chopped
5 medium potatoes, diced
Salt, to taste
1 teaspoon black pepper
- Bring four quarts water to a boil in a large covered pot. Add the beans, reduce the heat to medium, and cook, uncovered, for 30 minutes, stirring frequently.
- Add the onion, garlic, olive oil, thyme, bay leaf, basil, carrots, celery, parsley, butter, and cabbage. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer for 1 1/2 hours, stirring frequently, until the beans are nearly tender.
- Add the potatoes, salt and pepper. Continue simmering for 30 to 45 minutes, until the beans are very soft and the soup is thick. Taste for seasoning.
Grilled Cheese Florentine
This is a recipe for one, but can easily be multiplied to serve a friend, or a crowd.
1 cup packed organic baby spinach, well washed and drained
1/4 medium red onion, cut in half, then into thin slices
1/2 ripe tomato, cut into medium dice, juices reserved (in this season of not-so-great-tomatoes, substitute cherry tomatoes or oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, or a combination of both)
1/2 small clove garlic, minced
1/2 cup shredded mozzarella
1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt and pepper
2 slices multi-grain bread
- Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Combine the spinach, onion, tomato and juices, garlic and mozzarella in a bowl. Toss to combine, using your hands or tongs. Drizzle with the olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Toss again to combine. Spray a cookie sheet with olive oil spray or line it with parchment. Place one slice of bread on the prepared cookie sheet. Pile spinach mix on the bread, and don't worry about it overflowing. Place the second slice of bread on a the pile of spinach.
- Bake for 7-9 minutes or until the spinach is wilted and the bread is toasted. If desired, you can flip the bread over using a spatula, and bake the other side for 3-4 minutes until toasted, but we like the bottom slice soft so we serve it right from the oven with only one side toasted. Transfer to a plate and include all the filling ingredients that have fallen out. Serve with a fork and knife for eating.
Ricotta di Natale
As the book points out, the name of the dish translates as "Ricotta for Christmas," but it can be enjoyed year round.
1 pound ricotta cheese (locally produced and hand packed, if you can find that)
3 organic apples, Gala or other, cored and sliced
1 cup organic and local blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, and/or small strawberries
1/4 cup sliced almonds
2 tablespoons local honey
Mound the ricotta cheese in the center of a large, round plate. Arrange the apple slices around the ricotta cheese in a circular pattern, overlapping as needed. Scatter the almonds and berries evenly over the ricotta cheese. Drizzle the honey over the cheese and fruit.
(Note: my friend does not love honey, so I provided an alternate version. I grated some lemon zest into the ricotta, then added some sugar to taste. I also think this would be lovely with some dried lavender or hibiscus flowers scattered on top, so I am going to try that next time. Those can be purchased locally at Food Works, 450 Boston Post Road, Guilford, where you can find most of the other ingredients listed here as well.)