I have a recipe for fried rice that no Asian culture would ever want to lay claim to. It’s a recipe in the loosest sense, made when my partner and I realize we have enough of the ingredients already in the house, but nothing else to make it better or more cohesive. It’s easily added to or subtracted from, usually starting with vegetables we have to use up before next week’s CSA box, which means dicing up everything from onions to romano beans to amaranth leaves. We forget to make rice the day before, so in goes a heaping pile of freshly cooked basmati rice, and maybe an egg, or some frozen shrimp, so that the texture is alternately crispy and goopy. It gets seasoned with mostly soy sauce, but sometimes miso or gochujang whisked in. Out of the wok comes an umami-rich slop, fried rice only in memory. And honestly, who cares? Such is the glory of the house meal.
You, too, probably have a house meal, whether you’ve thought about it or not. It’s a dish that perhaps was once inspired by a recipe, but you’ve made it so many times, and riffed on it so often, that it bears little resemblance to any known dish. It is comfort food at its finest, a thing designed for your specific palate, with absolutely no thought paid to impressing anyone else. And unlike the mainstream understanding of “comfort food,” the house meal is about as experimental and adaptive as you can get.
“I was intending to make something resembling a traditional tortilla soup,” said Whitney Reynolds of Brooklyn, describing the invention of their house meal, “but then dang it if I didn’t buy the wrong kind of tortillas!” Instead of giving up, they sliced their flour tortillas into strips and put them in the soup anyway, turning them into “soft weird sloppy tortilla noodles.” Kristen Carzodo of Albany, California, says she makes what looks like steamed artichokes with aioli, but the sauce is just store-bought mayonnaise and vinaigrette mixed together. And Becca Thimmesch in Washington, D.C., says her “depression chickpeas” grew out of more popular recipes for chickpea curry, but turned into cooking a can of chickpeas with stock and onions, and then topping with yogurt and harissa.
But not every house meal is born out of a recipe gone wrong. Joshua Rivera says his house recipe — a fried egg over rice with a mix of hot sauce and ketchup — was just what his mom made when she was frazzled, money was tight, and she still had four kids to feed. And now, it’s his dish to make “as a solid backup or emergency plan” when there’s nothing else in the house and nobody feels like making much of an effort. Kendra Vaculin, whose house meal is dal mixed with scrambled eggs, said she first made it when trying to “cobble together a dinner from what I had in the fridge,” and found it rang all the bells of other egg and starch dishes, but with a comforting mushy texture. Reynolds also described a dish they made recently as “a real fucked up mess of Goya spanish rice mix, green olives, and ranch dressing all mixed together. Disgusting. Fantastic.”
What ties these house meals together is that mostly these aren’t things you’d serve anyone but yourself. Reynolds has added the tortilla soup recipe to their soup Patreon, and Rivera has made eggs over rice for his partner, but usually the house recipe is so calibrated to your personal comforts that it’d be almost too revealing to make it for anyone else. “It’s a single can of chickpeas for a single serving of dinner,” Thimmesch said of her house meal. Carzodo says she’d serve her artichokes and dipping sauce to the friends in high school, but for an adult dinner party she’d feel the need to make actual aioli.
So much of the impetus behind the house meal is an easy vehicle for soothing flavors, for times when you’re overwhelmed, busy, exhausted, or just don’t have the mental fortitude to make a bigger grocery list or cook something more elaborate. For Reynolds, “sloppy shortcuts” like the tortilla soup, or another dish they make with herbed goat cheese mixed in overcooked rice, have become even more important as they recover from contracting COVID-19 in March. “Six months on I’m still suffering from a lot of fatigue and I can get exhausted easily. I’ve particularly become unable to tolerate heat, which can make cooking pretty difficult. So the more things I have that I can just throw together without a lot of standing in a hot kitchen, the better. Slop SUSTAINS.”
However, it doesn’t mean the house meal is just about shoveling calories into your body. Thimmesch says her chickpeas are “for those nights where you just feel horrible and you want to make something for yourself that’s easy and fast and uncomplicated, but warm and brothy and wakes up your tastebuds a bit.” It’s not flavorless gruel meant only to provide you with filler, but your favorite flavors and textures at their most concentrated. Hot sauce and egg, chickpea and harissa — the elements of more complicated dishes reduced to their most obvious components.
I’ve always prickled at phrases like “comfort food.” The way it’s utilized in America tends to enforce a white, middle-class, and frankly bland palate. Comfort food is tater tots and mac and cheese, and the epitome of a home cooked meal is a “simple” (three spices maximum) roast chicken. Not that those things aren’t delicious, but this language sets up a stark divide: Outside the home is for the weird, the avant-garde, and the new. Home, where comfort lies, is for the simple and the unadventurous, with the assumption that “adventurous” is any cooking laying outside of a northwestern European tradition.
But as these house recipes show, “comfort food” is in the eye of the beholder, and can be an area of great fusion and experimentation. “I’ve been using tomatoes all summer to great effect, but greens work really well, or peppers (kind of menemen-y in vibe plus the dal), eggplant, caramelized onions, or leftover roasted squash,” says Vaculin of her egg-and-lentil mash. “I usually put whatever herbs I have on top, and/or a drizzle of olive oil or ghee or hot sauce or tadka.” My goopy fried rice is usually flavored with miso or gochujang, but sometimes I’ve added leftover tomato sauce and oregano, or takeout birria broth. The point is not adhering to any one flavor profile, but making something entirely suited to your tastes, whatever those are.
The house meal, then, is the epitome of comfort food — not in the broad sense, but when and how it actually matters. It is easy, it is replicable, and it doesn’t need to satisfy anyone but those in your household. And sure, you can gussy it up for company or just for yourself, but... why? I’d only ever add something I could just throw on top,” says Rivera, who once attempted anchovies with his eggs. “Any more work undermines the point.”