Getting Real With Belinda Hulin

My husband just got his birthday present in the mail from his parents in Pennsylvania. Since this happens to be one of those “life milestone” birthdays, one might be thinking he’s counting significant bills, basking in the glow of a fine watch or examining a new electronic gizmo. But no. Jim’s parents know the way to make him feel loved, appreciated, accomplished oh so much better than you or I might.

Mom and Dad sent him a big box full of bags of potato chips.

Not any potato chips, mind you. These are Middleswarth chips, available only in a limited area in Central Pennsylvania. Jim grew up in a Middleswarth (as opposed to other local brands) family and ate nothing but Middleswarth chips in his tender, formative years. Imagine his shock when—upon entering the U.S. Navy—he learned that the rest of us have long been deprived of his favorite side dish and snack.

Of course, tissue-thin, preservative-free potato chips quickly become stale here in the Florida humidity. So, I was pressed to make Jim’s favorite meal from childhood post-haste, while the chips were at their just-opened, crunchy best. That meal? Why, the “gourmet special,” his mother’s simple, rib-sticking, weeknight comfort combo. It consists of a buttery grilled cheese sandwich, a mammoth helping of Middleswarth potato chips, and hot kidney beans, all washed down with lemonade or soda. Served properly, the beans have been cooked down with a touch of butter, and the beans and bean liquid become a kind of dip for the chips.

As a Louisiana native, I first made the mistake of assuming that my own red beans and sausage, made from scratch with dried beans and nurtured for hours over a slow fire, would be a fine addition to this homey delight. However, I was informed that while my beans were fine over rice, only canned dark red kidney beans were acceptable for the gourmet special.

And so, I made the gourmet special for Jim. Then I made a white bread and American cheese grilled cheese sandwich for my daughter, and an American cheese quesadilla for my son. And I mused on the tacky little secret I believe we all share: For every serving of bruschetta, of small-batch handcrafted cheese, of endive salad, of Frenched rack of lamb and chicken veloute we savvy cooks present, there are thousands of different gourmet specials being whipped up, loved, devoured and kept under wraps.

As summer approaches, I think we should liberate those closeted meals and embrace our love of kitsch cuisine.  I’ve written five cookbooks and have a decades-long career telling others how to cook the trendy dish du jour, how to entertain, how to pick the right side dishes, desserts and wines for a fine entrée.  And yet, I can’t think of anything I’d rather eat than veggie soup made with leftover pot roast, lots of diced potatoes and an inexpensive can of spaghetti sauce.  When I’m stressed, depressed, or nervous, you’ll find me deep into a bag of Cheetos or a carton of store-bought vanilla ice cream, and I recently introduced my kids to the joys of making “impossible” pies with Bisquick baking mix.

In fact, I just came up with my own kitschy comfort recipe based on the concept. Tonight, while Jim is having another round of the gourmet special, the kids and I will have this adaptation of a cottage pie—itself a notorious comfort dish. If you’d like to join me, here’s the recipe. Oh, and feel free to confess your own favorite kitschy dish.

Weeknight Cottage Pie

2 tablespoons butter
5 pounds red potatoes, peeled and sliced
2 pounds ground beef
1 medium onion, diced
1 cup tomato sauce
1/3 cup barbecue sauce
Salt and pepper to taste
3 cups shredded cheddar or Colby-Jack Cheese, divided use
4 eggs
1 and 1/2 cups milk
1 cup Bisquick or other baking mix

Generously butter the bottom and sides of an oblong casserole dish.

In a large pot, boil the sliced potatoes until just tender, about 15-20 minutes, depending on the thickness of the slices.  Drain the potatoes very well, then carefully layer into the buttered casserole dish. Smooth the potatoes to create an even layer.  Top the potatoes with 2 cups of the cheese.

Combine the ground beef and onion in a pot and cook until the meat is no longer pink and the onion is softened.  Drain well in a metal colander or strainer, then return the meat and onion mixture to the pan. Add the tomato sauce and barbecue sauce. Stir well and cook over medium heat just until heated through.  Add salt and pepper to taste.

Layer the beef over the potatoes and cheese.  In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs and milk until well-blended.  Add the baking mix and whisk until the mixture is blended and free of large lumps.  Pour the baking mix batter over the beef and top with the remaining cheese.

Bake at 350-degrees for approximately 30 minutes, or until the top is browned and a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.  Let stand for 5 minutes before serving.

Makes 8 servings.