Everyone knows what to eat on holidays and special occasions. But what about the not-so-special occasions? You know, those crappy days when an invasive procedure becomes imminent, or the hanger support in your closet finally snaps in two, or a jaywalker flips you off, or you didn't get the job?
What are you supposed to eat the day your pet dies? Comfort food? That jumped the shark on 9/1 1. By 9/1 2, the entire comfort concept was stripped of its charm and jammed back into the reptilian recesses of our brains. Comfort food may have soothed yesterday's blues, but in these globally unhinged times, we need something that soothes dread. It's time to upgrade the comfort food concept to mood food. Mood food is like comfort food, but the expectations are lower. Bad mood? Mood food. It's what's for dinner.
Good moods don't need go-to foods. But bad moods need the kind of sustenance found at the all-you-can-eat carbs buffet. Maybe Dr. Atkins never had to put on his pajamas while it was still light out, but the rest of us need the occasional coddling that comes from within the carbs coddle.
The magic of carbs is that they stroke the inner brow. Protein doesn't. It's needy. It burns up like dry leaves so you have to refuel every two hours, and if you don't, say hello to Low Blood Sugar Theater the event horizon to the black hole known as really hungry.
I go from hungry to horrible in about 60 seconds. I don't consider eating when I'm really hungry a meal as much as a community service. When our fuel tanks fall below empty, the nature of a meal morphs from pleasurable to utilitarian; it's a meal to be scarfed down and forgotten, not one to be savored.
That's when I eat fish, which I hate. It has nutritional value, but like most things we're "supposed to eat," it never satisfies. Unless it's sushi, which I love. But sushi falls into that category of things I'll eat but won't make at home, like foie gras. De-veining raw goose liver with my bare hands? I don't think so.
Sushi is a mood unto itself, and when I'm in it I go to Koi, a little neo-groovy Zen bamboo hang in the musical key of Everything But The Girl. The employees are hot, the sakitinis are cold, and you'll swear the food is flirting with you. Albacore sashimi in basil oil, spicy tuna on crispy seared rice cubes, crab hand rolls from heaven. It's so good that when Paris Hilton strolls in, as she always does, I don't care how much older she makes me look.
But sushi moods and bad moods are miles apart. When I'm in a bad mood, I want carbs. I want pasta. I want obscene amounts of grated Parmesan cheese, tomato sauce, earthy porcini mushrooms, chewy pancetta, the zotz of crushed red pepper, all smothered on that gratifying delivery system that is pasta. It's chewy, gooey, warm and in a bowl everything you could want in mood food. Not that it's ever available when I'm ornery. Who wants to cook then?
The fact is we're all prey to bad moods, so until McDonald's offers a Cranky Meal, being prepared is our only option. Mood food is characteristically something you whip up using only what's already on hand. This requires forethought when stocking our larders. Nobody wants to anticipate a bad mood; we might jinx ourselves into one. But the alternative is being trapped in one with nothing in the fridge but a tired lemon, string cheese and month-old pita bread, hardly bad-mood ammo.
Mood food comes in three flavors: sweet, salty and the hybrid I call "swalty," like peanut butter and jelly, tuna salad with chopped dried cranberries, and my creation buttered white toast with strawberry jam and bacon. The swalt factor: nirvana.
It's chewy and just a little crunchy, and hopefully the forbidden butter grease seeps through the bread. As age has taught us, forbidden usually means better than we're allowed.
There's also rice, which I respect as a carb capable of delivering fats. But unless it's a well-turned-out risotto or it's swimming in sweet, thick pudding, rice is usually lackluster.
Sugar-based mood food is simple and obvious. Candy, cookies, frozen desserts, pudding, pie and what I think is a bad mood's best friend, iced cake. Bakery. Pepperidge Farm. It's all good, as long as it has icing.
Ice cream is a staple. Chocolate or vanilla Haagen-Daz mini cups that have thawed in the fridge for 20 minutes are a simple fix. In a pinch, a fistful or two of raw cashews can tame a moody sweet tooth. And if you've got nothing else, a spoonful of peanut butter tides you over.
Generally, sweet mood food is ready to eat. Salty mood food requires some assembly, but when you're prepared, it's always worth it. That's why you walk that green mile from the TV to the fridge. It's also why we have three sizes of pants. We take that hike so much around here that, like kids on a car trip, we made up a song that we sing on the way. Aretha Franklin sings "Chain, chain, chain. Chain of fools." We sing, "Train, train, train. Train to food."
Walking the green mile for Skittles never cuts it. My prime-time TV carb of choice is bread. It's versatile and user-friendly, and none more so than English muffins. Lighter than a bagel and chewier than sliced bread, it's the always-appropriate little black dress of gastronomy. Fancy with melted Jarlsberg on top of a thin slice of prosciutto, or down-home with egg salad and a sweet gherkin. As long as they're toasted, they never disappoint. (Then eat the Skittles.)
Our ideal carb larder is stocked with frozen breads, and fixings for tuna salad with pecans and little globlets of goat cheese on toasted Italian bread. There are finger-rolled deli cold cuts dipped in mayo, steak sauce or Thousand Island dressing; liver pat and brie on a cracker; white chocolate; corned beef hash and poached eggs; Kozi-Shack rice pudding cups; supermarket rotisserie chicken dipped in barbecue sauce; and creamy Campbell's microwaveable soups in sippy cans.
And when being buried in a piano case ceases to be embarrassing, I'll also keep coconut cake, chocolate cake, Baby Ruths, Almond Joys and jelly beans. And frozen garlic bread that I'll bake, then quickly broil with mozzarella cheese. And did I mention white chocolate?
And then, there's pasta, the penultimate bad-mood food. Call me a snob, but until I bottle my own sauce, I'll leave the supermarket brands for those whose acid reflux medication is covered by their health plans.
Ironically, I only make this perfect bad-mood food when I'm in a good mood, which is usually Sunday morning, the only morning often accompanied by one of the week's best moods. But Sundays are tweener days; they still require a dinner bowl of magic to take the edge off the reluctant segue to Monday morning and the onslaught of another week of moods T.B.D. (or: moods to be named later.)
Here's how I spell relief:
* 1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms
* 1 cup beef broth (preferably salt free)
* 2 tablespoons finely chopped shallots
* 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
* 4 tablespoons butter
* 4 tablespoons diced pancetta, diced or strips
* 1 1/2 cups canned Italian tomatoes, roughly chopped
* 1/3 teaspoon crushed red pepper
* Freshly ground pepper
* Salt to taste
* A hunk of Parmesan cheese
* 1 pound rotelle pasta
Bring beef broth to a simmer. Transfer it to a bowl, add mush-rooms and soak, covered, for 30 minutes.
Reserve the broth. Lift mush-rooms out of bowl with a slotted spoon and rinse in cold water. Chop roughly and set aside. Line a sieve with paper towel, strain the broth into fresh bowl, and set aside.
Add oil and butter to a medium-size sauce pot, and saut the shallots over medium heat until translucent.
Add the pancetta and saut another minute or so, stirring several times. Add the mushrooms, saut another minute or so. Add tomatoes and their juice, reserved mushroom soak broth, crushed red pepper, a little salt, four or five twists of a pepper mill. Cook uncovered at a gentle simmer for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon.
Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain well. (I put it back into the pasta pot on the still-hot-but-off burner, and stir vigorously for a few moments to dry out the remaining water so the sauce will stick better.)
Remove pasta pot from heat. Pour sauce into pot and stir well.
Grate an embarrassing amount of Parmesan cheese into the serving bowls.
Add sauced pasta and top with an even more embarrassing amount of grated cheese.
Robin Bakay lives with her husband, Nick, who makes a habit of using Drew Bledsoe interceptions to cajole her into making porcini mushroom sauce for his bad mood.