Cooking up compassion for a better world with The Kitchen Witch

January 11, 2012

I’ve been thinking about how exactly, we might help our world be a better place, and one thing I keep coming back to would be helping babies be secure, particularly by helping new moms to feel loved, safe, supported and secure—perhaps bringing casseroles (rather than books) to new moms.

When I started to think about big social change, my wife suggested I start by bringing one casserole for one new mom, pragmatic wisdom.

Now maybe I’m a little OCD, but I had to wonder:  What would be the quintessential casserole (or other dish) to bring to a new mom, if one was hoping to bring love and comfort, to bring the spirit of the village, something magical or at least deeply nourishing to hedge against post-partum depression, despair, sleep deprivation and the overwhelming need for mother-love as one is tasked, particularly for the first time, with the care of a newly arrived human being (or perhaps even a puppy)?

For this alchemical question I turned to Dana Talusani, a.k.a. The Kitchen Witch, whose recipes for everything from transformative food to trenchant, piercing and vivifying story-telling are always peppered with her authentic keepin’-it-real world view and a perfect dash of snark to balance her core sweetness.  KW always keep me coming back for more.

So, KW, what would you suggest we cook up for the mom of a newborn?


Truth is, new moms don’t want casseroles. I am adamantly against casseroles for new mothers and grieving widows, because that’s what everyone brings. They mean well, but casseroles reek of pity.  And all well-meaning neighbors bring a variation of two casseroles 1) chicken, soup, rice/noodle, broccoli or 2) pasta, marinara, cheese, meat/mushroom.

Ever had a whole refrigerator and freezer full of the same benevolent casseroles? It’s depressing as Hell.

I propose a big pot of lentil/beef soup or something out of the ordinary that re-heats well, like Coq au Vin.  I always bring Beef Bourgignonne or Coq au Vin to new mamas or the sick or the grieving.  Although if someone’s really in a bad way, I’ll make my Gramma Rhetta’s over-the-top-rich Chicken a’la king, as it’s the one thing I really want when I’m in the weeds. Bad for the ass, but good if you’re only eating tiny bits at a time.


Now even though I, at PoP, have been a bit “in the weeds” myself these January post Holiday bluesy days, “Gramma Rhetta’s over-the-top-rich Chicken a’la king” must be begged for at KW’s proper alchemical home (bad for the ass?  HBDC, and I’ll be first in line to make it when she unveils it.  Soooon, please, KW).

Meanwhile, Dana has selected the following two recipes for us.  I invite any reader who cares to step up and make them, with extra love thrown in for good measure, to share them with anyone you love, perhaps a new mom if you have one handy.


Lentil and Beef Soup
serves 6
slightly adapted from Giada De Laurentis

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 pounds boneless beef chuck, cut into 1-inch cubes
salt and pepper
3 celery stalks, chopped
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
1 large onion, peeled and diced
6 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped/crushed
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
2 sprigs fresh thyme
6 (14-ounce) containers beef broth, preferably low sodium
1 (24-ounce) diced tomatoes in juice
2 cups brown lentils, rinsed
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
grated Parmesan cheese, to garnish

In a heavy large stockpot, heat the olive oil on medium-high flame. Season the beef with salt and pepper. Add half of the beef to the pot and brown on all sides, about 8-10 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon, set aside and repeat procedure with remaining beef. Remove all beef from pan. Add celery, carrot, onion, garlic, rosemary, and thyme to the pot. Cook until vegetables are softened, about 5-7 minutes. Add the beef (and any accumulated juices) back to the stockpot and pour in the beef broth and tomatoes/juice.

Bring soup to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer, cover the pot, and simmer until the meat is just tender, stirring occasionally. This will take 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Add the lentils, stir and continue simmering, covered, until lentils are tender, about 40 minutes.

Remove rosemary and thyme sprigs, taste the soup and adjust salt/pepper to taste.

Serve in large bowls sprinkled with parsley and Parmesan.


Healthier Coq au Vin
serves 6
adapted from Everyday Food

3 fresh thyme sprigs
5 fresh parsley sprigs
1 bay leaf
3 slices center-cut bacon, cut into 1/2 inch dice
olive oil, as necessary
4 pounds (about 12) bone-in, skinless chicken thighs
salt and pepper
1 chopped onion
4 large carrots, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
2 garlic cloves, crushed
2 tablespoons tomato paste
3 tablespoons flour
1 1/2 cups dry red wine (Pinot Noir or Burgundy work well)
1 (14-oz) can chicken broth
1/3 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley, to garnish
Mashed Potatoes, Egg Noodles or Crusty Bread

With kitchen twine, make a bouquet garni–tie the thyme, parsley and bay leaf together in a small bundle.

Heat a large stockpot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add bacon and cook until browned and crisp, 5-10 minutes, stirring often. Remove bacon but leave drippings in pot.

Crank heat to medium high. Season chicken thighs well with salt and pepper. Working in batches (3 batches, unless thighs are very small…you don’t want to crowd them), brown chicken on each side, about 4 minutes per side. If necessary, add olive oil between batches if the pan seems dry.  After each batch, set browned chicken on a plate.

To the drippings left in the pot, add the onion, carrots and garlic. Cook 3-4 minutes. Add in tomato paste and flour and stir vigorously, scraping any browned bits off the bottom of the pan.

Add wine, chicken broth, browned chicken thighs and herb bundle. Bring to a boil.

Cover pot and reduce to a simmer. Cook 10-15 minutes. Uncover pot and simmer until chicken is cooked through, 10-15 minutes.

Remove chicken and let the sauce simmer another 5 minutes or until a bit thickened. Add chicken back to pot, remove herb bundle, and stir in crisped bacon.

Top with freshly chopped parsley and serve with mashed potatoes, egg noodles, or crusty bread to soak up the sauce.


So, thank you KW for stepping up with great culinary counsel.  And for any who dare to try and risk failure, rejection and generally falling short in the kitchen (and everywhere else), the very willingness to fail and try again is both the essence of actual learning and a sure invitation to join us in good-enough parenting, cooking and loving.

And so what if we suck?  HBDC

If you do attempt to bring practical and pragmatic love to anyone, new moms in particular, by riding on the vapors of KW’s magic, feel free to report in here, or over at KW, and share the love virtually.

Now, in the words of neither-my-uncle, nor anyone at Kitchen Witch Stadium: Soyons de cuisine!

{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

BigLittleWolf January 11, 2012 at 9:42 am

I love this idea, Bruce. And you know I’m a fan of the approach of changing the world one small act and one person at a time. So why not one casserole at a time?

In fact, the one and only one friend who remained from before and after my divorce, all these years, is a woman who showed up a few days after my first son was born, 20 years ago. She lived down the street was herself 7 months pregnant with her 4th child. She had a tray with a casserole (actually, I think it was brisket), salad, wine, and dessert. We’ve been friends ever since; her 4th child and my two are like siblings.

But I have a slightly expanded version I’d like to suggest. Let’s not save our casseroles purely for the new moms. Let’s consider the casserole from the woman who lives alone, next door. Or the man who walks his dog, and seems preoccupied and worried. Maybe it’s a one casserole offering of compassion to anyone who seems to need an act of kindness, a good meal, or maybe both. How good we would feel receiving that kind of kindness. How good we would feel giving it.


Bruce January 11, 2012 at 12:01 pm

I’m with you all the way on this BLW—and, while I may need casserole coaching a light positively went on at the mention of brisket, something I can offer up with love and a modicum of confidence (thanks, in large part, to my now-passed mother-in-law, a great cook and a generous cooking teacher).

Once we broaden things to anyone who needs an act of kindness (and don’t count our own selves, and those living under our own roof at any given moment, out) I’m sure we’re off to the races of cooking, love, compassion and conviviality (hopefully even, or perhaps especially, through lean and melancholy times).



Alana January 11, 2012 at 10:08 pm

I just signed up tonight to deliver food to a home with a brand new baby #2. Last month it went to a friend with brain cancer. The month before that a new babe. In 2010 we received a month of every-other-night dinners after the stillbirth of our son. It does make the world a kinder place. I’m with KW on the casserole thing (unless it’s my husband’s deelish potato/artichoke/leek). My new fave dish to give? Sloppy Lentils with warm, fresh bread and a big ol’ salad. Yum.


Bruce January 11, 2012 at 10:25 pm

Hi Alana, You’re leading the charge, so I’ll do my best to follow. Do feel free to elaborate on potato/artichoke/leek casserole and Sloppy Lentils. Here’s to love and good food through hard times and great times.


Katrina Kenison January 12, 2012 at 4:43 am

Cooking is the thing I do with ease. And it is the way I love. So I’m already on this bandwagon. But you two dear souls give us here a wonderful, essential reminder that small gestures make a big difference. Love that phrase, “benevolent casseroles.” Right; who wants ’em? (Well, actually, my sons LOVE a good old-fashioned chicken and macaroni casserole, preferably made with Campbell’s cream of chicken soup to bind it all together). But to your great suggestions I’d also add: a beautiful fruit salad, ready to eat, with raspberries scattered over the top — in the middle of winter. A day brightener for sure.


Bruce January 12, 2012 at 6:55 am

Excellent idea, Katrina—and seasoned, as always, with your lovely spirit. This is just what I need, good input so I can better know what to actually do when it comes to effective giving; this, I realize, is a potential deficit with the brain, at least my brain, when addled into intellectual space and untethered from the heart, soul and courage found in meat, potatoes, fruit and vegetables… A beautiful fruit salad—perfect; the light summery counterpoint to wintery warming sustenance.


TheKitchenWitch January 12, 2012 at 6:27 am

Thanks for having me over to play, Bruce! It was great talking to you! Giving a virtual hug and a wish for less “weeds.”


Bruce January 12, 2012 at 6:56 am

Right back at ‘cha KW. Thanks many times over, XO


Jenna January 12, 2012 at 8:34 am

It’s enough to make anyone want to become a new mom, if just for the chance of receiving one of these wonderful, soul-comforting dishes.
TKW, I’m totally behind you in your casserole-ousting plan.


Bruce January 12, 2012 at 1:09 pm

I’d be tempted to become a new mom if there was a KW casserole in it for me :), meanwhile, it’s nice to see you here, Jenna. Happy cooking, loving and connecting.


Cathy January 12, 2012 at 12:17 pm

Hi Kitch – so nice to see you here! And now I know you’re the helping sort, I think I’ll have to hit you up on a recipe or two. Of course, if you’d just come out with a cookbook, then I would have a handy reference.


Bruce January 12, 2012 at 1:12 pm

I second that cookbook request, Cathy—particularly including the secret recipes to be yet revealed… Namaste


Kate January 12, 2012 at 5:30 pm

I was so lucky after my second, I got three meals a week for a month. And every meal was different. And not one was gone in a single day. I didn’t cook or shop for a month. Which was wonderful since my husband was traveling again.

Some moms cooked amazing things, but I am equally thankful for the mom who got a rotisserie chicken, baked some potatoes and delivered it with a salad in a bag. And two moms who just didn’t cook found neat places that make healthier foods to go (awesome Greek chicken and rice and an amazing brisket). Home cooked is awesome, but food is necessary.

Oh, and my go to delivery – beef stew and a loaf of homemade bread. And a salad. And if I really love you, apple pie.


Bruce January 12, 2012 at 8:27 pm

Hi Kate, That does seem lucky and I would imagine that your child benefited from the suffusion of love and kindness in which you found yourself nourished and made safe. My hunch is that this translates into kids who turn out just a little more secure, a little more resilient, a little more ready to explore and share and love life, trusting that things will be alright for them. So while it’s mostly the thought that counts, getting it right does sound like it means a lot in those wonky wobbly first weeks with a new baby. And like you say… if you really love someone, then I bet that apple pie will deliver the message like nobody’s business.


Kate January 13, 2012 at 3:13 pm

I’ve never thought that those early weeks of abundance may hve affected who she is. When my first came, I had a different experience, not of lacking anything but of a certain amount of uncertainty. And now, I wonder, is that a factor in who they have started to become? (of course, the months and years after matter too, but those early days…)


Bruce January 13, 2012 at 3:37 pm

I truly think it is a factor. Many things exert influence, but a calm and supportive environment, especially for that first kid experience, can make a huge difference in how a kid experiences life and the world. I think we can always work to facilitate trust and compassion within ourselves, our kids, and each other at any stage, but that going full-court love and abundance at the start saves a lot of trouble later on (and helps compensate for whatever any given new mom may not have gotten from her own birth and early infancy).


Jane January 12, 2012 at 6:07 pm

What inspiration, Bruce! And TKW is the one I’d go to for casserole and non-casserole ideas.

When my biological son was born (just 3 months after my son through adoption had arrived) a dear friend set up a meal plan, setting up a calendar where she emailed our friends and they signed up for meal, that nourished us for about a month. It was heaven. We had our fair share of tomato saucy and chicken rice casseroles, for sure. But the thought of not having to think about dinner during such a hectic time was divine. Simply divine.

And I love Big Little Wolf’s suggestion of finding other reasons to share a home cooked meal. There are many among us who could use a little unexpected comfort.

Thanks for giving us the nudge Bruce and TKW!


Bruce January 12, 2012 at 9:25 pm

Hi Jane, Your story is inspiring to me, with hands so extra full, to have so much TLC arrive to swaddle you guys in nourishment and support so you could focus on welcoming two babies and helping them feel safe and secure, it sound, as you say, simply divine (and shouldn’t it be that way for every mom and baby?) Is there really a shortage of us to bring the love and the food once we decide that this is the way we want to roll? And yes, I’m totally with BLW on not limiting it to new moms, but I do think new moms and babies are a very powerful way to save extra anxiety and sadness later on by bringing the love before the pain of anxiety, alienation and sorrow has a chance to set up shop first, when the baby’s brain is first mapping the world and deciding if this is a safe and fun place or a fearful and painful place. Thanks for sharing your story and what it meant to you, as this helps me deepen my trust in this sort of thing being a great way to make a difference.


alisha January 12, 2012 at 8:59 pm

as a died-in-the-wool southern woman, even i agree the casserole reeks of depression. a great thing we do is make huge batches of vegetable soup in the summer, can in mason jars, pass out at will. add a homemade cornbread to that and voila!


Bruce January 12, 2012 at 9:30 pm

I like it, Alisha—planning ahead in the long days of summer so you can give when the need arises and not be limited by the slow-moving and shortened days of winter (which are crimping more than one or two of our own spirits this January). And like Katrina’s fruit salad, this way of bringing sun and hints of summer into the dark corners of potentially trying times seems intuitively lovely and uplifting.


Laurie January 16, 2012 at 8:13 am

After the birth of my son those 12 years ago the best thing a friend brought to us was a bag of groceries filled with already prepared goodies; cut melon, cut veggies, juice and other delights. It made me cry (that and my hormones) it was so perfect. To this day I smile upon that gift.


Bruce January 16, 2012 at 3:50 pm

Yes, it’s amazing how much something like that can mean when it comes at just the right time. Here’s to excellent timing—both in improv and in life. Namaste


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