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Photo by John Ross | Grilling the dough for an individual pizza.
Photo by John Ross | Grilling the dough for an individual pizza.

As we begin the New Year, I have thought about the place of cooking in our lives. Yes, we have to feed ourselves and our families to live. But most of us know that food plays a much more important role. That role differs from day to day and occasion to occasion. For me, cooking is therapy that keeps me grounded in something tangible and always gives me a degree of satisfaction. Part of that satisfaction is the ability to sit around a table with others and share the experience of our lives.

The following quotes are from the introduction to an excellent anthology of poems about food and drink called “The Hungry Ear,” edited by Kevin Young. I have provided recipes to accompany some of these sayings. I hope you’ll all enjoy some degree of cooking in 2014. Bon appétit and happy New Year!

Love, satisfaction, trouble, death, pleasure, work, sex, memory, celebration, hunger, desire, loss, laughter, even salvation: to all these things food can provide a prelude; or comfort after; and sometimes a handy substitute for.

Comfort food:

ADULT MACARONI AND CHEESE

Cook 1 pound orecchiette in 3 quarts of boiling water and drain. Whisk together 4 eggs, 1 cup milk and 1 cup heavy cream. Season with 1 teaspoon coarse salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper, 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg and a dash of cayenne pepper. Stir in 6 ounces shredded Monterey Jack cheese, 6 ounces of Emmental and 6 ounces of extra sharp cheddar. Combine the egg/cheese mixture with the cooked pasta and place in a casserole. For the topping, combine 1 cup panko bread crumbs with 1/4 cup melted butter and 1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Sprinkle the topping over the casserole and bake, uncovered, for 30 minutes at 375 degrees.

A good meal provides such sustenance not just out of need, but a whole host of things, whether reminding us of our childhoods, or grandparents, or the old country — or teaching us about a new one. Food transports us to another place like little else…

Taking us to another place:

MOROCCAN TAGINE WITH VEGETABLE COUSCOUS

Remove the meat from the bone and trim any excess fat from 3 pounds of shoulder lamb chops. Cut the meat into 3/4-inch pieces; you will have about 2 pounds of meat. Toss the meat in a bowl with 1 teaspoon turmeric, 1 teaspoon cumin, 1 teaspoon dried ginger, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, and 1 teaspoon each of salt and pepper.

Heat a Dutch oven and add 2 tablespoons canola oil. When very hot, brown the meat in batches, being careful not to crowd. Remove the meat and lower the heat. Add 1 diced Spanish onion and 2 cloves of garlic, minced. Cook briefly and stir in 2 tablespoons flour. Stir in 1 cup chicken broth and bring to a boil. Add back the browned meat with any juices. Add 1 cup dried apricots and 1/2 cup currants. Cover the Dutch oven and place it in a 300-degree oven for 1 hour or until the meat is very tender.

For the vegetables, cut 1 green pepper and 1 red pepper in half and remove the seeds. Cut 1 red onion into quarters. Place the peppers and onions on a foil-lined sheet pan and roast at 450 degrees for 20 minutes. Remove and peel the skins off from the peppers. Cut 1 head of cauliflower in half and trim into small flowerets to make about 2 cups. Peel 4 carrots and cut into sticks about 3 inches long. Cut 2 zucchini into sticks.

Heat a large sauté pan and add 2 tablespoons canola oil. When hot, add the cauliflower and carrots and let them brown at high heat. Cook in batches if necessary and stir to prevent burning. Remove them to a casserole and brown the zucchini quickly. Add it to the casserole along with 1 small can of diced tomatoes and 1 can of chick peas. Stir in 1 tablespoon cHarissa seasoning (available at several local shops). Cut the roasted peppers and red onion into 2-inch pieces and add to the casserole. Season with 1 tablespoon coarse salt and 2 teaspoons pepper. Cover and place in a 300-degree oven for 30 minutes.

At service time, cook 1 package of couscous according to package directions. Serve the couscous on the plate with the lamb on top and the vegetables around the sides. Garnish with chopped cilantro and lemon zest.

The best poems, like the best meals, are made from scratch. Both rely on the seasons, but also human history.

Both also consist of tradition, on knowledge passed down either from books or from generation to generation, hand to mouth.

Made from scratch:

GRILLED INDIVIDUAL PIZZA

Make a pizza dough by placing 1 cup warm water in the bowl of a electric mixer along with 1 package of active dry yeast, 1 teaspoon sugar, and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Combine 1 cup whole wheat flour and 1 1/2 cups bread flour. Add this to the yeast mixture and mix at medium speed with a dough hook for 10 minutes. Add a little more flour, if necessary, to make a clean bowl and firm dough. Remove and place in a bowl with 1 teaspoon olive oil and cover with a towel. Let the dough rise about 1 hour in a warm place.

Make pizza sauce by heating 2 tablespoons olive oil in a saucepan and adding 1 tablespoon minced garlic. Stir in 1 can of crushed tomatoes, 2 teaspoons salt, and 1 teaspoon pepper. Simmer 20 minutes and stir in 1/2 cup chopped basil.

Punch down the dough, turn it out on a floured surface, and cut into 4 pieces. Roll these pieces into separate balls, flatten them and roll into small individual pizza dough about 8 inches in diameter.

Heat a grill plate on the stove and brush the dough with olive oil. Cook the dough on the grill plate about 2 minutes per side and remove. Spoon some of the sauce onto each dough and sprinkle shredded mozzarella cheese over all. Garnish with anchovies, peppers, mushrooms or other toppings. Just before service, heat a sheet pan in a 425-degree oven and cook the pizzas for about 10 minutes.

The ephemeral nature of cooking:

In one crucial way, food differs from writing: Food is temporary. It is exactly this fact, as many a writer will tell you, wherein the sublime pleasure of cooking really lies. After a long day of being immortal … there is something satisfying in getting your hands dirty. With food, the better it is, the less it sticks around.

John Ross, a chef and author, has been an active part of the North Fork food and wine community for more than 35 years.

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